What man is a kimpurisa?

kimpurisa in pali

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.

kimpuruṣa in śatapatha brāhmaṇa

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.

considering pali and sanskrit together

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.

aboriginal speech and justice

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.

the kimpurisa as an uncontacted aboriginal

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.

on “human” speech

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 (,, or supposed to mutter quietly (, or else they say some words apparently as colloquial sayings (,,, 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.’


Namo Buddhaya!

I think it’s more likely someone who would be called autistic or otherwise a strange-person.

There are lots of people who just don’t talk for various reasons.

I’d bet if you find a translator and ask a 1000 aborigens about why they don’t care to learn the common dialect nobody will say ‘because we don’t want to lie or misrepresent others with false speech’.

Very interesting, thank you! I have been enjoying the essays on Brahmanical connections in the EBTs. :pray:

I think that translating kimpurisa as ‘aborigine’ misses the connotation and context of the Pāli word some. It seems to impute a specifically modern understanding onto a pre-modern word.

The equivalent, I believe, would be an ancient text that uses the term ‘barbarian’ to refer to outsiders, or say ‘asuras’ to refer to Persians. If the translator were to change ‘barbarian’ to ‘foreigner,’ they would be changing the context and connotation of the term ‘barbarian’ which is informative of what the authors of the text have in mind.

I believe it would be the job of a footnote or comment to explain what ‘barbarian’ meant in the particular context of the text to the authors, especially if the translator is relying on speculation to guess at a word that is intentionally and inherently vague, like ‘barbarian’ or ‘kimpurisa.’

A suggestion would be:

The What’s-It People see two reasons not to use regular speech …
Footnote: ’Kimpurisa,’ here translated as ‘what’s-it people,’ seems to refer to uncontacted aborigines in the area who were not familiar with the culture and parlance of the Indo-Aryan influenced civilizations.

Just as a rough idea. (‘Barbarian’ also isn’t a bad word itself, as it refers etymologically to unintelligible speech, and so is more clear without footnotes).

From Google definition for barbarian.

(in ancient times) a member of a community or tribe not belonging to one of the great civilizations (Greek, Roman, Christian).

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The point is how it best fits the complex of ideas. A kimpurisa is half-man, half-horse, or half-bird, they live in the Himalayas, have an idealized lifestyle, and so on. All this fits an aborigine wearing furs or feathers, but not an autistic person.

Every word does this.

That would be imputing a specific now-archaic period of understanding. You can’t escape the historicity of words.

Anyway, there are other terms better suited for “barbarian”, such as when tribes are said to raid villages. The kimpurisa is always depicted as gentle and harmless.

Sure, but in normal usage it means “savage”, “brutal”.

Here is my footnote:

The kiṁpurisa (literally, “what man?”) appears in Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa and as a substitute in the human sacrifice. The context here assumes that the lack of regular speech by kiṁpurisa requires explanation. Thus a kiṁpurisa may be a tribal person or aborigine who spoke little or whose speech was incomprehensible. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa treats mānusiṁ vācaṁ as “regular speech” in contrast with the divine words of the Vedas (,,,,,,


Of course, and I know my comment doesn’t go into detail about semantics and philosophy of language :laughing: But I’m trying to highlight the more obvious example of, say, “barbarian” to “foreigner” or “asura” to “Persian.” “Kimpurisa” to “aborigine,” to me, falls into the same pattern, and so another word (which equally has its own imperfect baggage, it’s a translation after all!) would get at a more essential aspect of the word.

I understand how you are highlighting a different part of the word you see as potentially more relevant contextually, and I don’t think it’s a bad choice. Just wanted to get across a different opinion in terms of the connotation.

I think ‘asura’ being used for Persians(?) in Brahmanical sources is actually a better example. It’s really not possible to convey the cultural and historical details of that nomenclature. Other words have a much closer fit, like ‘hand’ or ‘lamp,’ despite the original words being embedded in the cultural references, phonological similarities, etc. in the source language that cannot be easily translated. But either way, I would think delegating ‘asura’ to ‘Persian’ is missing a big piece of what the text is saying, even though another translator may feel ‘Persian’ is what they feel needs highlighted.

All the best :blush:


The word kimpuruṣa is also found in other vedic texts from the time of the Buddha and earlier - for example in the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa, Baudhāyana Śrautasūtra, Śāṅkhāyana Śrautasūtra and the epics (Rāmāyaṇa & Mahābhārata). The variant word kinnara (or kiṃnara) and its feminine form kinnarī (or kiṃnarī) is also to be found used in pretty much the same sense.

In some sources kimpuruṣas are identified with yakṣas (and they have Kubera as their king). Kubera is also known as Vaiśravaṇa (Pali spelling: vessavana) or kinnareśa (lord of kinnaras). He was said to be the former ruler of Laṅkā, and he is also the ruler of Alakā. Alakā is normally to be located somewhere in the northwesternmost part of the Himālayas, close to the site of Meru (or Sumeru), which I believe is today’s Tirich Mir (which is located in the northernmost part of the subcontinent - it is also commonly said in other texts that the subcontinent is located south of Meru).

I think kinnaras, kimpuruṣas and yakṣas were therefore forest-dwelling tribal people living in the Western Himalayas.


Although I find your argument about what a kimpurisa was, @sujato , to be interesting and persuasive, I think that translating it as “aborginal” is too different from the text and would better be relegated to a foot note. A better compromise between the literal meaning of the phrase and your speculation about its orgin might be to translate kimpurisa as “quasi-human” in order to convey that to the society in which they were spoken about, they were regarded as not really human.

As a related question, do we have evidence that Indians knew during this time that apes/monkeys could not talk? Because if people lacked that knowledge, then their encounters with apes/monkeys could have contributed to their understandings of what a kimpurisa was.

Do we have evidence now during this time to validate a belief that apes do not talk?

Non-human language and communication studies is something that is very recently being explored with any real rigor, and much of what we think we know just tends to boil down to anthropocentric views arising in Christian Europe. Not all societies did or do think that animals “do not talk”.

Just a thought experiment:
An ant asks another ant, “do humans talk?”
The other ant responds, “They don’t seem to communicate regularly to one another with chemical scents or trails and so forth. Occasionally they seem to mimic something like it, but it seems much less precise and hardly productive. What they do tend do is flap our tongue around to produce various grunts and sounds; sometimes they make large body movements organized together, but they all seem to be doing the same ones without communicating anything particular between one another; doesn’t seem like sophisticated communication to me, but there could be something there!”

Humans recognize their own face in a mirror; dogs recognize their own scent. Looking at Indian jātaka tales, we see many representations of talking and communication animals who process complex ideas and perform ethically charged actions.

All this to say, it’s really a particular cultural construct to think it’s unreasonable for apes to be considered intelligent creatures who communicate with one another. It is not at all universal or even uniquely “modern.” It’s very well possible that what modern biologists would consider non-human, others in India would consider some type of human. Not sure if this relates directly to the kimpurisa but it does relate to your point.


Thanks, yes that seems likely.

Indeed. Perhaps kinnara is a synonym used precisely because it has a handy feminine version, as I don’t think we find kimsrtī.

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In Itihasa texts (e.g., chapters 88 and 89 of the Rāmāyaṇa) the female of the species is called
a kimpuruṣī.

Its Pali equivalent, kimpurisī, is found in the Ummādan­tī­ Jātaka:

Darting one glance from her bright, lovely eyes,
The temptress took me captive by surprise,
Like woodland elf (vane kimpurisīva) upon some mountain height,
Her graceful motion won my heart at sight.
(Jat 527)


Nice translation in rhyming couplets!


Yes, it is. Though the credit goes to Henry Thomas Francis (1837-1924), not me.


Oh right, thanks for the correction.

In any case, it does argue against the translation some suggest, “eunuch”.