July 05, 2018

On the Etymology of “Me ma mur”

The Tibetan rendering of kukūla, the name of one of the four peripheral (hot) hells (nye ’khor gyi dmyal ba), is me ma mur. We also know that saṃsāra is occasionally compared to a me ma mur gyi ’obs (“infernal pit of hot embers/ashes”) and dug sbrul gyi tshang (“basket of poisonous snakes”). My concern here is the etymology of me ma mur. It is clear that this word belongs to the category of Tibetan nouns that have the structure “X ma Y” (i.e. “neither X nor Y but in a way both X and Y”). We know the value of X here and thus the word me ma mur would mean “neither fire nor mur.” But what is mur? bTsan-lha’s brDa dkrol gser gyi me long (s.v. me ma mur) does not help us to understand the etymology. The Tshig mdzod chen mo (s.v. mdag ma), however, understands me ma mur as me ma thal (“neither fire nor ash”). It makes perfect sense. But do we know mur in the sense of “ash”? I do not. bTsan-lha records a word mur thom me, which is explained as mi gsal bar gyur pa (“which has become inconspicuous”). Perhaps mur in me ma mur should be understood as “inconspicuous” or “dormant” as opposed to “conspicuous” or “active.” Thus me ma mur may be understood as “neither [conspicuous] flame (me) nor inconspicuous (i.e. extinguished) [fire] (mur).” Does the meaning of me ma mur (“neither [conspicuous] flame nor inconspicuous [fire]”) incidentally reflect an idea that is reminiscent of the old Vedic notion that fire, when extinguished, does not really cease to exist but somehow becomes inconspicuous?


  1. Well, D, I thought the Zhangzhung-ish look of it may mean something. But ZZ mur means 'below, under' (Tibetan 'og) most of the time. And I see there is a name for the Tibetan Me-ma-mur Hell, which is ZZ Ne-nur-ti-cu. (It's in the Mdzod-phugs, chapter 5.) Ne is ZZ for 'fire.' ZZ ti-cu is a kind of underlying basis. That leaves ZZ nur, which doesn't seem to exist, so maybe they meant to spell it mur? So sorry. Bad idea. It's not a ZZ term at all. Sorry I brought it up. Have a great day. -D