Therīgāthā Translation Questions

I’m working on my Pāli skills doings translations from Therīgāthā. I’ve a specific question here, but if anyone wants to help me out on the process, it would be appreciated.

It concerns Thig 2.8 and Thig 2.9 specifically the matter of authorship.

Thig 2.8 is called Abhayamātutherīgāthā - “To Abhayā’s Mother From Her Daughter” which I think might be a wrong translation on Ven. @sujato’s part? He gives 2.9 to Abhayā as well, or perhaps I’m missing something.

Ayya Soma ascribes 2.8 to Abhayā’s, 2.9 to Abhayā’s mother.

I think both are wrong due to Pāli notes alone: 2.8 is attributed to Abhayamātā Therī, 2.9 is to Abhayā Therī. But perhaps again I’m missing something.

Thig 2.8 starts addressing amma, mother. But perhaps this is a cute way to refer to your own child; in my country, mothers call their child “my dear mommy”. SC Dictionary seems to support this view as well (it can mean mother, or daughter in a term of endearment).

So, am I correct to think 2.8 is written by Abhayā’s mother, 2.9 is written by Abhayā? Perhaps Ven. Sujato & Ayya Soma are relying on commentaries for their attributions?

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Hmm, let me check …

Authorship is unclear in these verses. Generally speaking, in this portion of the Therigatha, many verses are addressed to the nuns, or are otherwise associated with them, so we the fact that they appear under a nun’s name doesn’t mean that they composed them. Having said which, unless there are indications otherwise, it is reasonable to assume they composed them.

With Thig 2.8, there are two elements to help identify the composer:

  • the first line is addressed to amma, which usually means “mother”. (More below)
  • the final line was spoken by a woman.

The commentary says the first verse was spoken by Prince Abhaya to his mother, repeated here by her, while the second verse was composed by her.

With Thig 2.9, we also have two bits of grammatical information that help:

  • the first line is addressed to Abhayā (feminine vocative).
  • the last line of the first verse is by a woman; it is feminine, spoken in first person.

The commentary says that these two verses were spoken by the nun Abhayā. In the first line, she is addressing an exhortation to herself.

We can read that in two ways:

  • per commentary, all is spoken by Abhayā
  • the first two lines are an exhortation to Abhayā by an unknown third person, while the rest are by her.

Probably in this case it’s best to follow the commentary.

Now, returning to Thig 2.8, there is a tendency in the commentary to take verses under the nuns’ names and attribute them to men. So when the commentary says this I’m suspicious. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but we should be reserved about accepting it.

Regarding the use of amma, this is almost always used in the sense of “mother”. The only exception to this that I’m aware of is in Thig 3.5. There, the mother, out of her mind with grief, wanders about addressing her daughter as amma. But in that case, I’m pretty sure the use is meant to be a sign of her distress; she’s calling her daughter “mother”. Nor do Sanskrit dictionaries acknowledge the use of this vocative to mean “daughter”. So we are on safe ground to assume amma means “my dear mother” here.

We can read it as:

  • all spoken by the daughter to the mother
  • first verse spoken by the son, second verse by the mother
  • first verse spoken by the daughter, second verse by the mother

It’s not easy to decide this. On the basis of the Therigatha alone, it seems to me that the sequence of verses suggests a connection between Abhayā’s mother and Abhayā. Since the daughter is mentioned right there, the economical reading is that it is she who is addressing her mother. And since the text does not require two speakers, it is also economical to assume she speaks the second verse as well.

Of course it is quite possible that the two names were just drawn together because of their similarity. But there is a detail in the commentary: it says both women were from Ujjeni, and both were friends (abhayamātusahāyikā). Unless Abhayamātā named her son after her friend (?) this seems an unlikely coincidence.

If we follow the commentary, we have to invoke a party who is not present and assume a coincidence in the name. And there is no indication that a male is speaking: addressers and addressees are all women.

Another detail is the use of evaṁ to start the second verse. This is commonly used by a speaker to connect something with what they have spoken before. I feel like it would be idiomatic, if this was spoken by the mother, to acknowledge, “practicing according to my son/daughter’s words”. This is not really decisive, but it seems to me like the verses read as:

Practice like this; when I practiced like this I realized Nibbana.

So it seems to me most likely that the two verses were spoken by the daughter. But it is certainly not definitive. I’ll put some notes on this, thanks for drawing it to my attention.

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Yeah, it’s certainly a messy ordeal. But it eases my heart to see that you pay such attention & respond thoroughly to something that I couldn’t just let rest -
nor clearly could you. So sadhu and thanks for the bits a ton, Bhante! :kissing_closed_eyes: Seems it’s a head scratcher indeed.

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I translated these two verses (and other Therigāthā verses) from Pali to Sanskrit recently so I had the opportunity to take a close look at the exact grammar and semantics behind each word and sentence. The first line is Pali, followed by Sanskrit and English.

abhayamātu-therīgāthā
abhayamātṛ-sthavirīgāthā
Abhayā (the sthavirī) is talking to her mother (Abhayamātṛ)

uddhaṃ pādatalā amma adho ve kesamatthakā
ūrdhvaṃ pādatalād amba adho vai keśamastakāt
“Up from the feet, mother, and down from the hair of the head”

paccavekkhassumaṃ kāyaṃ asuciṃ pūtigandhikaṃ
pratyavekṣasvemaṃ kāyaṃ aśuciṃ pūtigandhakaṃ
“see this (whole) body as putrid and impure”

evaṃ viharamānāya sabbo rāgo samūhato
evaṃ viharamānāyāḥ sarvo rāgaḥ samuddhṛtaḥ
“(By my) living in this way, with carnality completely uprooted”

pariḷāho samucchinno sītibhūtāmhi nibbutā”ti
paridāhaḥ samucchinnaḥ śītībhūtāsmi nirvṛtā – iti
the fires (of passions) having been cut-off, I am cooled and tranquil

The key word here identifying the speaker, is the word ‘pratyavekṣasva’ above, which is an imperative second person singular. Abhayā the sthavirī here is exhorting her mother to consider/see a physical (human) body as being putrid & decaying, and not as something to be considered an item of loveliness or beauty, and thus preventing any carnal feelings from arising (as they are cut off at the roots).

The commentary names the mother as Padmāvatī (a common feminine name in India even now).

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This is possible in Pali/Sanskrit too. But only the context can say if this is the case. In the above verse it doesnt seem to be the case.


Another verse where the daughter (or her spirit) is talking to her living mother who is weeping over her (dead?) body in the middle of a woodland, and the mother responds.
Again I present the Pali followed by my translations in Sanskrit and English.

ubbiri-therīgāthā (thig3.5)
urvarī-sthavirīgāthā
The sthavirī named Urvarī

[The daughter’s spirit speaks]
amma jīvāti vanamhi kandasi,
amba ‘jīva’ iti vane’smin krandasi
Mother, you are crying in the woods saying “(Please be) alive”

attānaṃ adhigaccha ubbiri
‘ātmānam adhigaccha urvarī’
“Please come back to your senses, Urvarī”

cullāsītisahassāni , sabbā jīvasanāmikā
turyāśītisahasrāṇi sarvā jīvāsanāmikā
but 84000 former lives I have lived, everytime you as my mother named me ‘Jivā’ (‘Life’)

etamhāḷāhane daḍḍhā, tāsaṃ kamanusocasi
etasmin ādāhane dagdhās tāsāṃ kām anuśocasi
and in this very cremation ground their dead bodies were cremated (ironically enough for a person named ‘Life’), which one among them are you grieving about now?

[The mother speaks in response]
abbahī vata me sallaṃ, duddasaṃ hadayassitaṃ
āvarhīd bata me śalyaṃ durdarśaṃ hṛdayāśritam
The thorn of grief has been pulled out, it was hard to see from outside, but which was wedged in my heart.

yaṃ me sokaparetāya, dhītusokaṃ byapānudi.
yan me śokaparītāyāḥ duhitṛśokaṃ vyapānodi
I was filled with grief for my daughter, now that grief is gone

sājja abbūḷhasallāhaṃ, nicchātā parinibbutā
sādyāvṛḍhaśalyāhaṃ nirīpsitā parinirvṛtā
Today with my thorn (of grief) extracted, I’m no longer desirous (of my daughter’s company) and am tranquil.

buddhaṃ dhammañca saṅghañca, upemi saraṇaṃ muni"nti.
buddhaṃ dharmaṃ ca saṅghaṃ copaimi śaraṇam munim – iti
“To the buddha, dharma and saṅgha, the sage, I go to for refuge”

The words “dharma and saṅgha” appear to be later additions in the last line.

Here too the context makes it clear again that the first four lines are the daughter’s voice, and the rest are the mother’s.

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By coincidence, I translated ‘Ubbiri’ recently.
Here’s my rendering:

51.[The Buddha: ]

Mother, you wail “O Jīvā” in the forest.
Come to your senses, Ubbirī.
Eighty-four thousand [daughters of yours], all with the name Jīvā, were burnt in this cremation ground.
Which of them do you mourn for?

  1. [Ubbiri:]
    Indeed, he pulled out the dart,
    hard to see, lodged in my heart;
    he expelled my grief for a daughter, when I was overwhelmed by sorrow.

Today I am freed of the dart,
without hunger, quenched;
I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha; [I go for refuge] to the Sage.

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Interesting, maybe you are right, the initial half could be the voice of the Buddha rather than the daughter (or her spirit). But I think that is unlikely because the Buddha wouldnt be addressing her mother with the vocative form ‘amma’/‘amba’ as if it were his mother. Also the last line appears to address the Buddha in third person rather than in second person.

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This is an interesting tangent from this topic. What verses in Thig in particular have a sense of such dialogue, in your venerables’ opinions?

The commentary explains it as the voice of the Buddha, if I recall correctly.

Perhaps ‘mother’ is a vocative to address older women in general- but I don’t really know.

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Charles Hallisey’s Therigatha translation for the Murty Library does a great job separating out the various voices in the poems. It also has the Pali on the facing page.

Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women - Murty Classical Library of India

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I looked in the commentary and couldnt find that. It rather says:

amma, jīvāti mātupacāranāmena dhītuyā ālapanaṃ, idañcassā vippalapanākāradassanaṃ
[The word amma (vocative of ammā) which is a word referring to a mother, is here used to refer to the daughter by the mother, and the context in which she is using it, is to show her grief/lamentation.]

But I think the commentary is wrong, because krandasi (you are crying) is in the second person, and it is clear it is the mom who is doing the crying, so she cant refer to herself in second person by using the word krandasi.

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There are many dialogue-type texts in the Therīgāthā. In a lot of them the speaker is not identified. The caption in prose provided under the verse also seems to be sometimes incorrectly attributing the speaker, as in the below case:

pūrṇā-sthavirīgāthā (thig1.3)

pūrṇe pūryasva dharmaiś candraḥ pañcadaśyā iva
paripūrṇayā prajñayā tamaḥskandhaṃ pradāraya - iti

itthaṃ svid pūrṇā sthavirī gāthām abhāṣiṣṭa .

Pūrṇā

Hey Pūrṇā (“Full one”), fill yourself with dharma-qualities (virtues), like how Candra (the moon) becomes full on the pañcadaśī [fifteenth lunar day of the lunar month or full-moon-day, also called the pūrṇā tithī or pūrṇimā ]
With paripūrṇā (complete/full) prajñā (wisdom),
shatter the skandha (mass) of tamas (darkness / ignorance).

Thus did Pūrṇā, the sthavirī, utter this gāthā (verse)


But the verse is addressing Pūrṇā in the second person, clearly someone else is talking to her. So the caption underneath the verse saying that it is Pūrṇā speaking, appears unlikely to be true.

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One of those was written “So advised Buddha to Elder…”, the rest attribute them to the therīs. Commentary attributes all those to Buddha.

I don’t particularly think it’s that weird to to adress yourself in second person. We all talk to ourselves, right? (I said to myself in the mirror, grasping my knees…) Particularly if it was a memetic culture of the time - for trainees to come up with verses to themselves so they would have something memorable to meditate on. These are all speculations of course.

This verse looks like an advice, which seems odd to come from oneself.

Again, it could be both ways. Commentaries certainly agree with this perspective, despite the official attributions. I know I certainly give myself an advice “Don’t be so stubborn Dōgen!” from time to time. :sweat_smile:

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This piece of the commentary for ‘Ubbirī’ may be helpful:

Ekadivasaṃ satthu santikaṃ gantvā vanditvā thokaṃ nisīditvā gatā aciravatīnadiyā tīre ṭhatvā dhītaraṃ ārabbha paridevati. Taṃ disvā satthā gandhakuṭiyaṃ yathānisinnova attānaṃ dassetvā ‘‘kasmā vippalapasī’’ti pucchi. ‘‘Mama dhītaraṃ ārabbha vippalapāmi, bhagavā’’ti. ‘‘Imasmiṃ susāne jhāpitā tava dhītaro caturāsītisahassamattā, tāsaṃ katara sandhāya vippalapasī’’ti.

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Oh OK thanks, I had skipped the introductory story altogether and went straight to the verse’s commentary.

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I’m going to check it out. Thanks a lot!

Also, are there any words or commentaries by modern scholar about why there’s so many verses that are repeated?

Why would you have the expectation that there would not be repetition? Honest question. From reading the text I have never gotten the impression that the verses are all supposed to be unique creations of each monastic. I have always assumed that some of the verses were just favorites of a particular person. A teaching that was helpful to them and they repeated often. Even today with monastic teachers we find that they may take on and frequently repeat things from the texts or other monastics.

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I don’t know! Perhaps it makes sense so. And I realise it would be culture of free-borrowing, especially since the spirit of the expression was more important than uniqueness or such concerns. I still didn’t expect this much free borrowing line by line though ! Perhaps I was still coming at it from a perspective of personal authorship modern biases. :smiley:

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