There are two discourses (SN 4.23 and SN 22.87) that deal with the highly unusual circumstances that brought an arahant to “use the knife”, that is, commit suicide. These suttas have been frequently discussed, and in this little note I’m not taking on the many interesting ethical and philosophical issues they raise, but simply noting a difficulty with one term.
In both cases when the Buddha sees the monk after committing suicide, they’re described as lying on their cot, vivattakkhandha. This term is found nowhere else, and it would seem that it should have a highly specific meaning. However the exact import of the term is unclear.
The etymology of vivatta is unclear, but it would seem to have the basic sense of “turn”. It’s only found in one other case, vivattachadda—usually translated as “one who has drawn back the veil [of the world]”—but the reading is confused with vivaṭa, and the meaning is similarly unclear.
As for khandha, in addition to the well-known sense of the five aggregates, it’s used to mean “trunk, shoulder, torso”, as well as a “mass” or “group” of anything.
Under vivattacchadda the PTS dictionary says vivatta-kkhandha is a curious expression (“with his shoulders twisted round”?). This reading, which is supported by the commentary, has been followed by Ven Bodhi and the PTS translation.
But under khandha the same dictionary suggests “one whose khandhas have revolved (passed away)” i.e. dead. The Chinese parallels support this reading. SA 1265 has 見跋迦梨死身，有遠離之色 “saw Vakkali’s dead body, detached from form”. SA 1091 has 殺身在地 “dead body on the ground”. There are two other Chinese parallels, but as far as I can see they don’t have an exact parallel of this term.
It would seem that we have two, completely different, possibilities. It could refer to the dramatic and violent death scene, in which case it would be “with limbs strewn about”, “with twisted torso”. This meaning is perhaps supported by the Sanskrit term śayyāprāntavivartana, “rolling from one side to another of a couch”. The commentarial explanation, which depicts the monk on his back with a slight turning of the shoulder, seems like an attempt to make the deceased monk’s deportment more dignified.
Or else it follows the similarly obscure vivattachadda, in the sense of “with aggregates cast off”. This too can claim Sanskrit support, as vivartay can mean “to cast off (a garment)”. Given the support of the Chinese texts, and the fact that in both cases this leads up to Mara searching for the consciousness in vain, I tend to favor this reading.