What does cheta mean?

In SN 9.3 we have a story of a monk who tries to educate a cheta. he is admonished in sharp terms by a local deity, who repeatedly says the cheta has no intelligence, no capacity for understanding, and the monk is a fool for trying to teach it/him.

What exactly the cheta is is hard to say, since it occurs nowhere else, and so far as I can see has no parallels in Sanskrit.


The PTS Dictionary, and Dhammika’s, take it to mean “cheetah”. This is tempting. If it was correct, it would be by far the earliest occurence of the word. Mirriam Webster derives cheetah from Hindi/Urdu, from the Sanskrit citra in the sense of “spotted”. It’s attested around 1600.

The relation of this to the Pali cheta is, however, problematic, as they prefer flatlands to take advantage of their speed, while the sutta is set in the deep mountains. Still, it could have meant a related big cat. But it’s also hard to see how cheta would relate to citra, although there is a variant ceta.

The commentary, followed by Ven Bodhi, takes another tack entirely, saying the cheta is a deer hunter. This interpretation has a significant advantage, in that it makes the monk seem several degrees less foolish. It’s one thing to try to teach an idiot who is not interested, quite another to teach a wild beast.

Still, this is not unproblematic. There are plenty of perfectly good words for hunter, why not use them? And the tone of the sutta strikes me as odd. Normally when hunters are spoken of, it is emphasized how wild, violent, and dangerous they are. And indeed, that’s exactly the kind of language that the commentary uses in telling the story of the hunter (mige vadhissāmi; sattiyā naṃ paharissāmi).

Here, however, there is no mention of anger; it is all about stupidity. It’s not surprising that a hunter would be considered not particularly wise. But it seems extreme for a deity to be telling a monk off just for trying.

Cone’s DoP is much less certain about the word. She gives the main reading as ceta, even though this is apparently only attested in one manuscript. It seems she does this to include it together with the references to ceta found in the Vessantara Jataka. There, however, the text speaks of the nation of Ceta as a wealthy and prosperous place. This can hardly be the same; surely it is just a variant for the kingdom otherwise known as Cetiya/Cedi/Ceti, etc. She acknowledges the possible sense of “hunter”, but with a question mark.

Perhaps more relevant might be the term ceṭa, which is found occasionally in the sense of “servant, menial”.

But perhaps we should leave all these interpretations aside. Since we have no other guide, we can ask the question: who makes most sense? What kind of meeting might there be in the middle of the wild mountains, where a monk would be enthusiastic about trying to teach and convert someone, while the local deity, who knows the area better, knows it’s a waste of time?

It sounds to me like an uncontacted tribesman. To this day there are multiple people or groups of people in the Indic sphere who have little or no contact with the outside world. They must have been far more common in those days. Such isolated tribes have been seen and contacted by monks in Thailand and Burma. It is hardly surprising that a monk would encounter someone from such a tribe, and attempt to convince them to give up their ways. To those from an Indo-European culture, they would have appeared primitive, not understanding civilized language. And of course, this does not contradict the commentary as such, since they would likely have been hunter-gatherers.

In this sense we might connect the term with ceṭa, as a term for a tribe or tribespeople in general. Or it might be a past participle of chindati in the sense of “cut-off, isolated”; but this form is not attested elsewhere. Or it might be an unrelated dialectical term.


I found this with some quick googling:

there is a single word in Malayalam and that is — Sukhamaano. Another word is ‘Chetan’, literally which means elder brother but it can also be used in some situations where you want to ask something to a random guy, e.g. “Cheta, how to do this/that ?”

The word is a Malayalam word. I checked and Malayalam is an Indian language, from Kerala (in the south), mainly. Perhaps some earlier root of the word generally made its way south at some point. A shot in the dark, but I agree that the subject of that part of the Sutta ( which seems to relate to discipline and behavior), would likely not involve a cheetah or leopard. The monk speaking to a generally astute animal would seem a curious choice given the general subject matter of the Sutta read as a whole. Thanks, Bhante, for an interesting read today.


Thanks for this. Indian dialects are so very complex! I am acutely aware that I only have knowledge of a tiny fraction of them. Without knowing more about the interactions between languages, I can’t say what the likelihood of a connection here is. Obviously, cheta is a simple word, and could easily appear in multiple languages. Still, in terms of pure semantics, it’s quite possible that the same word would stretch in meaning from “tribal warrior” to “elder brother”, or even that it just means “random stranger”, i.e. “dude”.

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Thanks, Bhante, for these essays. Your output is amazing and the subject matter of many of your essays adds some some real compelling spice to the mix on SC. These essays open some doors for me, not just to the subject at hand, but to the Suttas that are involved or referenced (many of which I would not have cherry picked from any of the Nikayas). Really good stuff, and much appreciated!

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Could it be a ghost of some kind? The “eta” ending is similar to “peta”.

In the Pali literature, large animals always seem to be intelligent in some way or another. The description of something, on the other hand, that vacantly looks but doesn’t see and listens but doesn’t hear suggests a being that is creepily zombie-like.

There’s no relation to peta, but otherwise you’re right, some supernatural creature is possible. There is a vivid and complex set of names for such, and it could easily be a local or dialectical form.