December 27, 2015


I would like to speculate about the etymology of the Tibetan word mnar med, which is a Tibetan rendering of the Sanskrit Avīci, name of the lowest of the eight hot hells according to Buddhist sources. Did Louis de La Vallée Poussin misread mnar med as something like mngar med? We have to check his translation of the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya again. But whatever the Sanskrit avīci may actually mean, the question is how did Tibetan translators understand it and why did they translate it as mnar med. And what does mnar med really mean? To be clear, mnar in mnar med does not fit at all with mnar in mnar ba “to suffer, to be tormented.” If it were the case, mnar med should mean something like “without torment,” but this is obviously the opposite of what the Avīci hell stands for and also the explanation that we find of this particular hell. According to one meaning, vīci is supposed to mean “wave” or “ripple” and thus avīci as “wave-less” (MW, s.vv. vīci & avīci). But this would make no sense in our hellish context. Another meaning of vīci is “(probably from vi + añc) going or leading aside or astray, aberration.” Probably Tibetan translators understood vīci as “deviation” or “aberration” in the sense of “interruption,” and thus avīci as “without deviation” or “without aberration” or “without interruption,” and thus “incessant.” But would any source confirm such a speculation? At least one of the nuances suggested by bTsan-lha’s brDa dkrol (s.v. mnar med, p. 413) would support such an interpretation. According to it, mnar ba can also mean de las lhag pa med pa (“un-exceeding” or “unsurpassable”) or bstir med (which is according to Jäschke, supine of sti ba “to rest or repose” and thus translated by him as “restlessness”). Thus mnar med or bstir med would mean something like “without repose” or “without rest” and hence “incessant.” This would fit well the explanation of the Avīci as a hell where its inhabitants are said to suffer incessantly or without any interruption or respite. The question that remains is if mnar in mnar med (as bstir in bstir med) is also a supine (i.e. “a Latin verbal noun used only in the accusative and ablative cases, especially to denote purpose (e.g. dictu in mirabile dictu “wonderful to relate”) of a verb that I do not know. It is completely wild but I wonder if mnar here is somehow related with mnal ba “to sleep.”

1 comment:

  1. It's true that the Sanskrit word v¥ci is supposed to likely derive from vi+2.añc, and have the meaning of going or leading aside or astray, aberration deceit, seduction, etc. according to Monier-Williams. He also notes it can mean a wave or a ripple. So, no problem in the Sanskrit side. Like you I can't honestly puzzle out what was going on in the minds of the Tibetan translators, and what mnar-ba meant back in the day when they 'invented' the Tibetan equivalent for the Sanskrit... Aw to hell with it!