Vaṅgīsa and his Mentor Nigrodhakappa

I have previously made small comment on this here:
A small question of meaning

What follows is part of a series of essays I am writing on the Sutta Nipāta. It is very rough and unfinished! feedback is always welcome.

The Nigrodhakappasutta is a series of elaborate verses by the monk Vaṅgīsa, whose mentor, Nigrodhakappa, has recently passed ([snp2.12]). Vaṅgīsa asks the Buddha whether Nigrodhakappa was fully enlightened. Vaṅgīsa was an accomplished poet, whose skill in extemporaneous verse was praised by the Buddha ([an1.212]). The quality of paṭibhāna is regarded as an asepect of wisdom; it refers to the spontaneous arising of a wise and eloquent expression of the Dhamma.

Ancient Indian literary culture is confounding to Western sensibilities, accustomed as we are to think of “literature” and “writing” as going hand in hand. In ancient India, a supremely sophisticated literary culture—with advanced linguistics, philosophy, and poetics—was created and maintained entirely through the oral tradition. Throughout the Suttas we see poetry spontaneously improvised. Vaṅgīsa’s style shows that such improvisations could reach a high degree of embellishment and sophistication.

The verses are full of wordplay, with unusual forms and vocabulary that are a delightful challenge to convey in translation. Consider just a single line:

khippaṁ giraṁ eraya vaggu vagguṁ
Swiftly send forth your graceful voice

Girā is a poetic term for a song or a saying. This is followed by eraya, which is a unique form in the Pali canon: a stem imperative from the rare erayati, to raise the voice. This leads onto the punctuation of vaggu vagguṁ, a reduplication of a word whose meaning is exactly how it sounds: sweet-sounding (cp. English “melody”). It can be read either as an emphatic reduplication “sweet sweet voice”, or with the first element as a vocative “sweet one, send forth your sweet voice”; I read it in the first sense.

Notice that the first pair of words and the last pair of words sonically echo each other. In each case we have a pair of two-syllable words, which are consonant-heavy, with the emphasis on gutterals. The vowels are short, and are repeated in each pair: i + a, then a + u. So we have a pair of chiming words to bookend the line with a solid rhythmic punctuation. They are joined together with the fluid eraya, which entirely lacks gutteral, or indeed any plosive consonants. It’s a musical line, its percussive chimes united with fluid melody.

Vaṅgīsa’s sophistication is not just in sounds; he loves to play with meanings as well. Consider these enigmatic lines:

Na kāmakāro hi puthujjanānaṁ,
Saṅkheyyakāro ca tathāgatānaṁ.

The suffix -kāra usually means “maker”, and kāmakāro appears in [cp16:11.4] and [ja524:26.3] as “wish-granter”, “fulfiller of desire”, while issariyakāmakārikā at [kv23.3:1.1] means “the will of God”, and at [pe6:73.2], akāmakāri is given as a meaning of “not-self”. The point here is that in the sphere of worldly desires, it is not possible to simply get what you want. Vaṅgīsa invents the term saṅkheyyakāra in contrast. Saṅkhā means “calculation, reckoning” and saṅkheyya means “calculable”. The Buddhas have a gift for explaining things in a way that makes their meaning clear. Unlike the illusory wish-granter imagined by ordinary folk, this is real.

For all the poetic ingenuity on display, Vaṅgīsa’s question is a simple one: was his teacher Nigrodhakappa enlightened? The Buddha’s response is almost comical in its brevity, underscoring the restraint and directness of his rhetoric compared to Vaṅgīsa’s. Rarely in the Suttas do we see such a stark contrast in personal styles. He affirms Vaṅgīsa’s hopes in just three lines, within which he makes room for a powerful simile of his own: Nigrodhakappa cut off craving like a “river of darkness”.


“gently honking” :joy: Thanks! Love these translation notes!


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