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The qualities of a heroic lady: the verse of Vīrā

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#1

The seventh verse of the Therigatha (Thig 1.7) is a simple one, but variant readings make it a little difficult to parse.

The first problem is the name. The verse follows on from one attributed to a nun called Dhīrā, and in the PTS edition, followed by KR Norman, the nun in this verse is called “another Dhīrā”. However, as Norman notes, she is called Vīrā in the Burmese and Sinhalese editions (this reading is also followed in the Mahasangiti edition on SuttaCentral.) As Norman also notes, the comment on her name includes the term viriya (an abstract form from vīra): Vīrā vīrehi dhammehīti vīriyapadhānatāya vīrehi tejussadehi ariyamaggadhammehi. Norman says this “might be thought” to favor the reading Vīrā, but surely the case is stronger than that.

The variation is easily explained: v/dh can be confused in manuscripts; a copyist might understandably repeat what they wrote a few lines earlier; and a later editor might add “another” Dhīrā to the rubric, cementing the mistake.

More important is the voice of the verse: who is speaking, and in what manner?

The PTS edition has an imperative verb in the third line, thus casting the verse as an exhortation. It is then felt to be addressed by the nun to herself. However, this is confounded by the absence of a vocative form, where the nun would address herself. Norman notes another case where the vocative is missing, but regardless, this is extremely rare.

The Mahasangiti avoids this issue by using an indicative verb where the imperative is found in the PTS. This particular idiom (“to bear one’s final body”) is found frequently, and in only one case is the imperative used. That case is a few verses down, in Thig 1.10. There, the first line is an optative, making it clear from the context that this is an exhortation, not a statement of fact.

In the context of Thig 1.7, the imperative does not really make sense: she is already said to be an arahant (bhāvitindriya), so why does she exhort herself? She is obviously bearing her final body!

Norman claims that the commentary “explains the imperative … by saying that the theri was addressing herself”. But the commentarial line he quotes doesn’t really support this:

antimaṃ dehaṃ dhāretīti therī aññaṃ viya katvā attānaṃ dasseti.
“She bears her final body”: the nun presents herself as if she was someone else.

Actually it works fine if we assume the line is indicative. (Note that the commentary itself has the verb in indicative; however this is not an independent support for this reading, as it is essentially the same manuscript lineage as the Mahasangiti edition)

The simplest reading is to assume that the use of the imperative in the PTS edition is a contamination from a few verses down. Then there is no need to explain away the lack of vocative, and no need to wonder why an arahant is giving herself an exhortation.

The verse is then cast in a simple third person indicative mood. It could be, as said in the commentary, that it is spoken by the nun about herself. Equally, it could have been a verse spoken by someone else, a verse of praise from the Buddha perhaps.

She’s known as Vīrā because of her heroic qualities.
A nun with faculties developed,
she bears her final body,
having vanquished Māra and his mount.

I have already made a few notes on Norman’s translation. Let us now have a brief look at the more recent (and readable) translation by Charles Hallisey in his Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women for the Murty Classical Library.

http://www.poetrysociety.org/psa/poetry/crossroads/own_words/Classical_Library_of_India/

Vira
Addressing herself, repeating what was spoken by the Buddha to her

The name you are called by means hero, Vira,
it’s a good name for you because of your heroic qualities,
you are a nun who knows how to know well.
Take care of the body, it’s your last,
just make sure it doesn’t become a vehicle for death after this.

So Hallisey accepts the reading Vīrā. He claims that the verse is from the nun, but repeating what the Buddha said to her. I am not sure where he gets this idea; it is not in the commentary. Perhaps it is found elsewhere, or perhaps it is just his interpretation.

Rather curious is his rendering of bhāvitindriya. It literally means “one of developed faculties”, while he has “one who knows how to know well”.

This is a phrase that definitely denotes arahantship, but his rendering doesn’t convey this; it has lost the sense of growth that is the point of the text. I can understand thinking that “developed faculties” is not very idiomatic, but this seems a strange way to put it. If I were to look for something more idiomatic, I’d probably say something like “one who has fully realized her potential”.

For dhāreti he has “take care of”, accepting the imperative reading of that verb; but in any case, dhāreti doesn’t mean “take care of”, it means “carry, bear”.

But the most problematic rendering is the last line: “make sure it doesn’t become a vehicle for death after this”. Again, there is nothing imperative in the Pali; there is nothing that corresponds to “make sure that …”. It is a simple statement of fact: she is an arahant.

Where the text mentions “Mara and his mount”, Hallisey paraphrases, following the secularist tradition of eliding mythology or anything not felt to be amenable to a modern materialist. Apart from the dubious worth of removing a memorable image, the paraphrase malconstrues the syntax. There’s nothing in the Pali that suggests her body might be a vehicle for death: the “vehicle” is the mount of Mara, i.e. his war elephant. The point is that she has defeated a mighty and powerful foe, the god of Death on his fearsome mount.

Thus in Hallisey’s translation, the spiritual attainments of the nun are diminished. She is not a perfected being, finished with the work, victor over Death himself. There is nothing in his rendering to truly distinguish her as awakened, so she remains in need of teaching and exhortation.

As I noted when discussing Murcott’s translation of Thig 5.2, it is easy for a translation, in the admirable quest for relevance and poetic style, to lose the strength of the original. This is particularly critical in the case of the Therigatha, where we are translating the almost-lost voices of ancient Buddhist women; or of any Buddhist women, really. Buddhist women have been, and still are, so consistently mis- and under-represented that special care must be taken to appreciate their spiritual achievements and ensure they are fully expressed.


#2

In cases of terminal illness there can be much pain. Ven. Channa had such terminal pain and the Buddha responded later:

The mendicant Channa slit his wrists blamelessly.

Suppose that Vīrā had such pain yet chose to be there through the end. We can all imagine ourselves coaxing our cars to keep rolling on fumes till the gas station. “Come on car, just a bit longer! You can do it!” Perhaps in this way one might exhort one’s body heroically to span that last mile till the end.

An oddly poignant perspective perhaps, but…

Vera, Vera
What has become of you
Does anybody else in here
Feel the way I do?