The kimpurisa (literally “what man?”) appears once in early Pali (AN 2.60), where Ven Bodhi, followed by myself, translates as “faun”, and notes, “A mythical class of beings in Indian folklore”. This is certainly true at a later date, but the text itself doesn’t establish that they are mythical:
Kimpurisā see two reasons not to use human speech. What two? Thinking: ‘May we not lie, and may we not misrepresent others with falsehoods.’
Not much information there, but at least we can say that elsewhere, non-human beings in Pali have no reservations about using human speech. Also, the statement assumes that they are capable of reflective interior speech, and indeed morality.
The Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa is a vast compendium of Brahmanical ritual dated not long before the Buddha, maybe 100 or 200 years. It seems to be the first place where the Sanskrit kimpuruṣa is found. Again, there is slim information.
Both instances concern the human sacrifice.
The man (puruṣa) whom they had offered up became a mock-man (kim-puruṣa). Those two, the horse and the ox, which they had sacrificed, became a bos gaurus and a gayal (bos gavaeus) respectively. The sheep which they had sacrificed, became a camel. The goat which they had sacrificed, became a śarabha. For this reason one should not eat (the flesh) of these animals, for these animals are deprived of the sacrificial essence (are impure).
‘Graciously accept thou, O Agni, the sham-man, the victim, as pith!’ a sham-man is a kim-puruṣa (mock-man): thus, ‘accept graciously the kim-puruṣa, O Agni!’
These passages establish that the kimpuruṣa was a substitute for a human in sacrifice. Note that the existence of human sacrifice in orthodox Brahmanism at any date is dubious, as even in SB the text creates such onerous conditions for its performance that it seems its purpose is to legislate it away, so that it exists only “on the books” so to speak, rather than being actually performed. Human sacrifice was, and is, performed in India, but not as an authorized Brahmanical rite.
In any case, clearly the kimpuruṣa was some kind of material entity here, not a mythical creature. The translator of this passage refers to scholarly discussion and suggestions that it referred to a species of monkey or ape that resembled a human; a “dwarf”, a “savage”, or perhaps a facsimile (like a Guy Fawkes). Dictionaries suggest that the sense “low person” is sometimes found; for example, condemned criminals are a common source for substitutes in human sacrifice.
Now if we assume that, since they stem from a similar period, both these sources are referring to the same thing, then we can combine the meanings and narrow the possibilities.
The Sanskrit rules out a mythical being, which seems plausible for the Pali too
Now, the Pali text begs the question, “why would the Buddha raise this issue in a talk?” It seems to be an assumed knowledge that kimpurisā don’t talk, and this was considered strange, else there would be no need for an explanation. This rules out the possibilities of the monkey or the facsimile, neither of which require an explanation for speechlessness.
This leaves some kind of human being that was thought to not use human speech. And this is, after all, the most obvious meaning of the name, as “what man” implies a kind of man of unknown type. And we can further rule out dwarfs or criminals, etc., as they have no problem using human speech.
It was from my girlfriend at Uni, Lisa, that I learned about the struggles facing Aboriginal people in Australia’s court systems. She studied this as a linguistics thesis. Many remote Aborigines don’t speak English, and can have little or no comprehension of what they are facing when they go to court.
Sadly, this remains the case today.
When put on the stand, having no idea what to say or what is expected, they often just keep silent, or worse, just agree with everything. All they want is for this confusing nightmare to be over.
That sad reality of life in modern Australia fits perfectly with the description of the kimpurisa in the Pali. They do not speak because they are afraid and ashamed to misspeak.
Thus it seems the kimpurisa was likely a uncontacted aboriginal person. Perhaps mendicants would encounter them while staying in the forests in remote regions in the Himalayas. When spoken to they stayed silent, while among themselves they spoke something incomprehensible as normal speech. This gave rise to the quite legitimate question, “what kind of man is this?”
Notice the very different moral stance taken in the Buddhist and Brahmanical texts. For the brahmins, the kimpurisa was a lesser form of human considered fit for the sacrifice, even if only in theory. For the Buddhists, they were considered an idealized, romanticized kind of person free from the moral turpitude of civilization. This is in line with the general idea in early Buddhism that civilization was in a state of decline from previously moral times.
The romanticized aboriginal could easily have evolved into the elfish “faun” of later times, appearing as half-horse or half-bird (due to wearing skins?), living remotely in the Himalaya, always happy, pursuing a life of remote, self-contained sylvan bliss.
So far I’ve been translating mānusiṁ vācaṁ as the obvious “human speech”.
The phrase occurs a number of times in the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa as a kind of speech that may be uttered by one performing the ritual, but which is not really supposed to be there. The priest may be supposed to keep silent (22.214.171.124, 126.96.36.199), or supposed to mutter quietly (188.8.131.52), or else they say some words apparently as colloquial sayings (184.108.40.206, 220.127.116.11, 18.104.22.168, 10.5.1.1). The translator therefore often renders it as “ordinary speech”. It seems it is meant to indicate regular colloquial speech as contrasted with the sacred language of the Vedas.
Not sure if this sense applies in the Pali, but perhaps we might translate:
Aborigines see two reasons not to use regular speech. What two? Thinking: ‘May we not lie, and may we not misrepresent others with falsehoods.’