In AN 4.127, SN 56.46, MN 123, and DN 14 there’s a memorable description of deep space: lokantarikā aghā asaṃvutā. It’s just one of the surprisingly modern descriptions of the cosmos that we find in the Suttas, conjuring up an impression of a vast, empty world where the realms of humanity are but isolated islands of warmth and light.
Bhikkhu Bodhi translates asaṃvuta as “abysmal”, which has suitably awesome ring to it. This rendering has stayed the same from his translation of the Majjhima until now, and I think it was probably taken over from Ñāṇamoli. But is a curious choice.
Asaṃvuta, which is more well known in the sense “unrestrained”, stems from the old root √vṛ, famous in the Rig Veda for the serpent Vṛtra who wraps the world in darkness.
How do we get from “wrapped, bounded” to “abysmal”? The commentary says
Asaṃvutāti heṭṭhāpi appatiṭṭhā (‘Unbounded’ means, not established even below.)
This explanation also made its way into the PTS Dictionary: “ungoverned, orderless, not supported, baseless”. Rhys Davids rendered it as “baseless” in his translation of DN 14.
Now, something that has no bottom can be said to be an “abyss”, and something abyss-like is “abysmal”. So it seems like a clever rendering.
But note how it relies on not one, but two stretches. First we have to stretch the Pali from “unbounded” to “bottomless (abyss)” via the commentaries. Then it’s another stretch in English from abyss to abysmal. In fact in modern English the underlying metaphor of abysmal is virtually gone, and it just means “extremely bad”; “abyss-like” is an archaic or literary sense.
The Chinese doesn’t have any such sense of “badness” here, translating literally as 無有障蔽, i.e. without bounds. Likewise, the Critical Pali Dictionary says “not closed; with no material limits”.
To understand the commentarial explanation, we need to also consider its purpose within the commentarial cosmology, described by Bhikkhu Bodhi in his note on AN 4.127. It’s given in much more detail in the Visuddhimagga. This depicts the world systems arranged in two dimensions, rather than the three dimensional galaxies we’d expect.
The tradition holds that the world systems are like plates arranged next to one another on a table, and the “interspaces” are like the gaps between the plates. Needless to say, there’s no hint of this two-dimensional cosmology in the Suttas. Even more needless to say, it’s not how the universe actually is. Quite apart from the loss of a dimension, it’s a world that is far smaller and more crowded than what we can see today through a telescope.
However, the two-dimensional model makes interpreting this passage problematic. If interstellar space is bounded by the solar systems on either side, how can it be “unbounded”? This must be why the commentary stresses that the space is unbounded “below”. A third dimension is introduced, but only as a dark chasm between the worlds. So the whole idea of the “abyss” really stems from an attempt by the commentary to buttress its interpretation, which ended up influencing both PTS Dictionary and subsequent translations.
Avoiding the commentarial explanation, I rendered the phrase as “boundless desolation of interstellar space”. Just for fun I googled it and found the sentence: “Innumerable small molecules plunge quietly through the boundless, desolate regions of interstellar space.” That’s exactly what I’m aiming for, to render the meaning so that it sounds like something a modern native speaker might actually use.