May 13, 2016

སྔགས།

Those of us dealing with Tibetan texts and ideas may have, at one point in time, wondered what the Tibetan word sngags literally means. In other words, what could be its etymology, should there be one. Ben Joffe recently wrote me asking if I have any thoughts on it. I wish to speculate here a little about the etymology of the Tibetan word sngags. For a moment let us forget about the etymology of mantra, often rendered as gsang sngags. Apropos the English translation of gsang sngags! In course of time, I happen to have developed some allergy to its translation “secret mantra.” Unless there is something like guhya preceding it, “secret mantra” seems to be a hyper-translation. Often the word gsang sngags is a rendering of mantra although for metrical reasons one might also encounter just sngags. Thus mantranyāna and mantranaya would be rendered respectively as sngags sngags kyi theg pa and sngags sngags kyi tshul. To be noted is that mantra (gsang sngags), dhāraṇī (gzungs sngags), and vidyā (rig sngags) may occur together as a set, in which case, I attempt to make a distinction by rendering them respectively as “magical formula,” “mnemonic formula,” and “cognitive formula.” We also encounter words such as mantrapada, dhāraṇīpada, and vidyāpada. Let us now turn to the Tibetan word sngags. We have a host of Tibetan words that seem to be based on the root ngag “speech/utterance.” First, we encounter several disyllabic words, where ngag appear as the second syllable. (a) We all know man ngag (for upadeśa). Its etymology seems to “medicinal/beneficial speech.” (b) We have snyan ngag (for kāvya). Its etymology “melodious/pleasing speech” may be self-explanatory. Some Tibetan scholars spell it as snyan dngags, which is said to be an archaic form of snyan ngag. (c) The word gdam/s ngag seems to literally mean “admonishing/counseling speech.” (d) The etymology of smre ngag seems to be “lamenting/wailing speech.” In all of these, it is clear that ngag means a certain kind of verbal articulation. Second, let us consider the verb mngag pa (its perfect form being mngags pa) “to commission, charge, delegate, send.” Also in modern or colloquial Tibetan, one would say that one has “ordered” (mngags) a plate of mo mo. Although its etymology may not be obvious, it seems that the act of “commissioning or ordering” is also a particular kind of “utterance” (ngag). One could theoretically order something or someone with one’s body or mind but the actual act of ordering is a verbal act and hence mngag is a special act or kind of ngag. Third, how about the Tibetan verb sngag/s pa (and its forms bsngag, bsngags, sngog) “to praise, eulogize, or extoll”? Here, too, one could express one’s praise with one’s body and mind but eulogy is primarily seen as verbal articulation and hence bsngags, too, is related with ngag. Third and finally, in which ever way one may decide to translate it, sngags (as in gsang sngags, gzungs sngags, and rig sngags) seems to have the primary meaning of a certain formula or spell, which has something to do with incantation, invocation, conjuration, or recitation. Therefore, sngags, too, seems to be a special kind of ngag. In short, sngags may be seen as a special kind of ngag in which a great deal of power and information has been encapsulated and encoded.

4 comments:

  1. If you were to see (in isolation) two syllables, dngags and sngags, what would you presume the difference would be between the d- and s- forms? My intuition is that the s- form would be the more active one, involving more direct involvement by the subject. (I think the spelling snyan-ngag is a modernist 'reduction' of the earlier (not by any means archaic) selling snyan-dngags, although it should be easy to check this theory at TBRC. Well, gotta run. Yours, D

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  2. Dear D, I admit the word “archaic” for rnying (Tshig mdzod chen mo, s.v. snyan dngags: (rnying) snyan ngag) is not very appropriate. It cannot be “obsolete” either. I cannot tell the difference dngags and sngag although perhaps your intuition may be right. At any rate, let’s keep our keep our prajñāic eyes open. Warmest, D.

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  3. I agree that ngag, sngog/bsngags, sngag and mngag are etymologically related, but it might be better to study them in terms of chain of derivation (actually I tried to do this for a different word family in this recent blog post.
    The base form from which all other etyma are derived is the noun ngag, from which sngog/bsngags (root NGAG) is derived by a s- denominal prefix (concerning this prefix and its relationship with the causative, see this article), and then sngags was derived from sngog/bsngags by addition of the nominalization -s suffix (discussed for instance in this article). For mngags, it would seems that we have a m- or a b- denominal prefix (*b- > m- before nasal consonants), but alternatively some denominal verbs are formed by taking the noun and using b-...-s in the past, as 'jo/bzhos 'to milk' (from zho) and 'chu/bcus 'scoop water' (from chu).

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