Why is mahājāniyo translated as a "great loss"?

Two translations appear in Pali biographical texts. One translation speaks of the “great understanding” of āḷāra kālāma and udaka rāmaputta, the Buddha’s teachers. The other speaks of their “great loss” in dying before they could be taught the new Buddhadhamma.

Both translations appear in the words of I. B. Horner: the first in her translation of the Vinaya, and the second in her later translation of the Majjhima Nikāya. Horner attributed the later translation to “Ven. A. P. Buddhadatta for this interpretation of jāni=hāni, loss.” Modern translations follow Ms. Horner’s position. But I don’t understand the reasoning behind this.

The words “jāni” and “hāni” can be taken to mean “loss”. A possible form of “jāni” is “jāniyo”. However that would make “jāniyo” both feminine and plural, and therefore it would not accord with the given “āḷāro kālāmo” and “udako rāmaputto”, both nominative, masculine and singular.

There is “jāniya” which could be taken to be is a gerund meaning “understanding”. That is, presumably the reason for the first translation, above. However, gerunds are indeclinable. Therefore, that would not account for the “o”

But I must ask: what is the grammatical explanation of the second translation?



All other questions aside, the ya- suffix is highly productive, including helping to form possessive compounds. So a form mahājāniya- meaning something like ‘of great jāni’ seems to me straightforward.
Does that help you at all?

I’ve only been learning Pāli since Stephen Sas began his classes this summer but here’s my go at it.

What I’ve seen is that a common way of forming adjectives from nouns is to add “iya” an example from Gair and Karunatillake is as follows:

assama = hermitage (ashram)
assamiya = belonging to the hermitage

Here is the sentance we’re discussing:

mahājāniyo kho āḷāro kālāmo.

This looks like predicative clause with an implied verb “to be”. I would expect mahājāniyo to agree in case and number with āḷāro kālāmo which rules out it being the plural of jāni, or anything other than a nominative masculine singular adjective.

The question then is: is mahājāniya formed by adding iya to mahājāni or mahājāna. It could be either. In the former case it would mean “Alara Kalama is a great loser” in the latter it would mean “Alara Kalama is a great understander”.



I know it is really pedantic, but my slight quibble with these translations is that they suggest the original form mahājāniya- is an agent noun (which, from the rest of your post, you don’t seem to be suggesting).

As so often though, it’s a question of taste :slight_smile:

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Hmmm… I guess.

But it’s an adjective functioning as a substantive in a way that it can’t do in English. That’s as literal as I could make them. “He is a great lose-ish”?

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I agree, it is tricky to come up with an English translation that closely follows the Pali!
How about:

Alara Kalama is indeed much deprived, and
Alara Kalama is indeed one of great understanding.

Just playing around with ideas here.


Nicely done :slight_smile:

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The following quote from Charles Duroiselle’s Practical Grammar of the Pāli Language may be relevant to the question:

  1. Adjectives formed by means of the possessive suffixes, ma (mat), vā (vat) (221), and vī, vin (231), drop these suffixes and the vowel which precedes them, before iya, iyya, iṭṭha and issika.
    (a) guṇavā+iyo = guṇa+iyo = guṇ+iyo = guṇiyo. Similarly: guṇ+iyyo, guṇiyyo: guṇ-iṭṭha, etc.
    (b) medhāvī+iyo = medhā+iyo = medh+iyo = medhiyo Similarly: medh-iyyo, medhiyyo; medh-iṭṭha, medhiṭṭha, etc.
    (c) satimā+iyo = sati+iyo = sat+iyo = satiyo
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The following gloss from the commentary to Vinaya may also be helpful:

Mahājāniyoti sattadivasabbhantare pattabbamaggaphalato parihīnattā mahājāni
assāti mahājāniyo.

My Pali is not yet good enough to translate this gloss or to answer my question.

Didn’t know that. Thanks.

That can be this week’s puzzle for extra credit!

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The commentary in the Tipitaka.org edition is a little different, though it doesn’t affect the meaning:

Mahājāniyoti sattadivasabbhantare pattabbamaggaphalato parihīnattā mahatī jāni assāti mahājāniyo
Mahājāniyo means: in the period of seven days due to the loss of chance to attain the path and fruit, he was one of great loss. (very rough translation!)

Looking at it, the most obvious rendering to me would be “he was a great thoroughbred”. Ājāniya (more commonly spelled ājānīya) is apparently used in this sense in every other occurrence. Since this is an epithet commonly used of advanced spiritual practitioners, it seems like the obvious reading.

However, Sanskrit texts confirm that this is not the case, and it must mean “great loss”:

Both the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya and the Catusparisat Sutra have the reading mahatī bateyaṁ jyānir, “great is his loss”.


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Thanks Bhante! Makes sense.

Thanks so much, Bhante @sujato .

[edit: this post displays my confusion: it can be safely ignored.]

You render “Mahājāniyo” as “one of very great loss”. I’m still not sure how to derive that. Is it, perhaps jāni + (the nom. masculine singular possessive ending mā or vā) + the nom. masculine singular comparative ending iyo (accounting for “very” )> jāniyo?

@Leon 's suggestion of “jāni + ya” is simpler, although I don’t think that “ya” is normally a possessive ending.



That’s not quite what I was suggesting.
The meaning ‘having’ comes from the fact mahājāniya- is a possessive compound. If you haven’t already, it would be worth reading about bahubbīhi compounds.
In Sanskrit and, I assume, in Pali, the suffix ya- (and ka-) can be added to these types of compounds without any real change of meaning.

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Hello @Leon, @sujato, @fiachra.harte.

Thanks for taking the time to address my questions. I accept your explanation of mahājāniya as a possessive compound. Based on your suggestion of reading about * bahubbīhi compounds, I now see that mahājāniya is a form of the bahubbīhi compound mahājani meaning “of great loss” with the suffix “ya”. I’m not sure what the normal masculine singular form would be, but with the ya suffix it doesn’t matter.

Thanks again,