March 19, 2020

A Tale of “Śāṇakavāsin” or “Śāṇavāsin”

Here comes a tale of “Śāṇakavāsin” or “Śāṇavāsin.” I mean the name “Śāṇakavāsin,” not the person behind it. The story of the person, who is said to be one of the seven/eight persons to whom the genealogy of the Buddha’s doctrine, primarily the Vinaya as a lived or applied tradition, is said to be successively entrusted, is well known. In Tibetan, these individuals are collectively called bstan pa’i gtad rabs bdun/brgyad. I wish we can trace the Sanskrit expression for it, if there exists one. This tale is actually a tale of error.
In Monier-Williams’ Sanskrit-English dictionary (MW), we find an entry: Ślanavāsa. It is supposed to be “m. N. of an Arhat, Buddh.” If a Sanskritist raises his or her eyebrows by seeing the name Ślanavāsa, it would be understandable. Not being a Sanskritist, I became curious if it refers to one of the bstan pa’i gtad rabs bdun/brgyad or sixteen sthaviras (gnas brtan bcu drug).
By the way, these sixteen persons may be all arhants, but unlike what we find in secondary sources, they are, at least according to the Tibetan tradition, called gnas brtan bcu drug, and not dgra bcom pa bcu drug (“sixteen arhats/arhants”). My instinctive question was what its source could be. The abbreviation “Buddh.” means “Buddhist literature.” A quick online search for the name “Śāṇakavāsin” seems to invariably bring me back to MW. My suspicion grew.  Because we know that MW is based on PW, I looked it up. It states: “m. N. pr. eines Arhant Tāran. 4. 51; vgl. die Anm. auf  S. 4.” Aha, at least, the PW provides its source. And “Tāran.” here is Tāranātha’s rGya gar chos ’byung. So I had to look up Schiefner’s German translation of the Tāranātha’s rGya gar chos ’byung. To be sure, I looked at Schiefner 1869: 4, and particularly, n. 1.  The note states: “Im Tibetischen yul bslan pa oder yul slan pa; es unterliegt keinem Zweifel, das hier eine Corruption des Namens Śāṇavāsika oder Śāṇakavāsa vorliegt; es findet sich dieselbe schon in der tib. Uebersetzung des Āryamahākāruṇāpuṇḍarīkasūtra in B. 50 des Kandjur Blatt. 81; es ist aber slan pa aus sā na pa corrumpirt und sā na aus Śāṇa; vergl. Mahāvanso pag. 19 und Köppen, Religion des Buddha S. 148 und 391.” Note that I updated some of the conventions in this citation. This note is actually very valuable. I did not verify the Tibetan translation of the Mahākāruṇāpuṇḍarīkasūtra but straight away wanted to use the TBRC. Indeed, we do find a couple of occurrences in the bKa’ ’gyur.  One occurrence is from Tāranātha’s rGya gar chos ’byung. Both spellings can be found: yul bslan pa and yul slan pa. To be sure, bslan pa and slan pa were not understood by these sources to be names of some place but explicitly as a name of a dgra bcom pa or dge slong. Those scholars had no easy access to all the various sources like we do now but we repeatedly find out that they were often very cautious scholars. They deserve our respect and gratitude. What Schiefner’s note above is essentially saying is that bslan pa (or slan pa) is a corruption of śāṇaTo be sure, śaṇa is said to be a “kind of hemp.” I think this is the same as what is called in Tshang lha language zangs/bzang ru. Before cotton or silk became popular in Bhutan, people seem to have used śaṇa fabric to make clothes and other articles such as bags, sacks, and so on. I understand śaṇa to be hemp or flex plant and śāṇa to be fabric made of it or things such as garments made of this fabric. It is thus interesting to see that Tibetans also rendered śāṇa as “śaṇa cotton” (sha na’i sprin bal). See, for example, TSD. As we can see in the Tibetan rendering so ma’i gos can (for śāṇakavāsin or perhaps śāṇavāsin), śana was also understood to be the somā plant. This is a bit strange. It is also clear that Tibetans generally understood vāsa to be “garment” (gos) and vāsin to be “possessing garment” (gos can).
Coming back to the name of our arhant in question, we should first dismiss (a) Ślanavāsa. Also (b) Śāṇavāsa (PWMW) and (c) Śāṇavāsika (PWMW) seem not to be based on primary Sanskrit sources. We also find (d) Śanakavāsin (Strong 1992: 303, n. 2) but its attestation in primary Sanskrit sources or its correctness seems to be questionable. (e) Śāṇavāsin (Strong 1992: 303, n. 2) seems to be found, for example, in the Guṇakāraṇḍavyūhasūtra and Ratnamālāvadāna (GRETIL). But these deal with the same topic? It needs to be checked. It appears to be used there in the sense of those wearing śāna-garments, that is, in the plural. But possibly Chinese and Tibetan had Śāṇavāsin as the name of our arhant. See Köppen 1857: 391, n. 2, which reports three different phonetic renderings of the name in Chinese sources: Schang ho sieu, Sche na po sse, and Schang no kia po scha (sic). The third is considered to be more exact. Also forms such as Śaṇavāsa, Śaṇika, Śoṇavāsī (nominative?), Śānavāsika, and Śāṇavāsika have been recorded in Chattopadhyaya & Chimpa 1970: 24, n. 24. But what seems, however, certain is the name (f) Śāṇakavāsin, attested in the Divyāvadāna and recorded in the BHSD, can be treated as the best choice of all.
But why did we or how did we come to Ślanavāsa, which found its way into the PWMW, and so on? As we saw above, some Tibetan translators translated the name of our arhant as yul bslan pa. Obviously Tāranātha’s rGya rgyar chos ’byung has two instances where our arhant is mentioned. In one, he is called Sha na’i gos can and in another, he is called dGra bcom pa Yul bslan pa, and the latter was reconstructed by Schiefner as Ślanavāsa (Chattopadhyaya & Chimpa 1970: 13, n. 75). It does not seem to be the case that Otto von Böhtlingk and Rudolph Roth preferred Ślanavāsa over Śāṇavāsa and Śāṇavāsika. They simply recorded all three. This was followed by the MW, and the like.
Regarding the Tibetan translation “Yul slan pa” or “Yul bslan pa,” I prefer the theory that “Yul bslan pa” was simply a corruption of “Yul sha ṇa.” Two kinds of error seem to be involved here. First, the corruption of Sanskrit śaṇa (phonetically rendered in Tibetan) as slan pa (thereby assuming the form of a Tibetan word) seems to be quite an early “transmissional error.” It appears that Śāṇavāsin or Śāṇakavāsin was only partly translated. Of the two components, śana or śāṇa was not translated but merely phonetically rendered. And vāsin (or something close to it) was translated into Tibetan as yul and interpreting it as a “place” or “dwelling.” This may be called “translational error” because the name has nothing to do with “place” but certainly “garment” (as suggested by many other Tibetan translators who correctly translated the name as Sha na’i gos can). In short, the name, at least in a couple of Tibetan translations, seems to have been initially “Yul sha ṇa,” which was corrupted to “Yul slan pa” and “Yul bslan pa.” By way of conclusion, we can learn one lesson from the tale of “Śāṇakavāsin” or “Śāṇakavāsin.” While we cannot uncritically and absolutely trust any source, no matter how much aura of authoritative they might emit, we can always learn something from any source, no matter how insignificant it might appear to be.


  1. There's that work by the 2nd Karmapa, Karmapakshi, that has this wonderful title : Dam pa'i chos 'dul ba'i gling bzhi [~gleng gzhi] na gos dmar can gyi yul nas 'ongs pa'i mkhas pa yang dag phyi rol nyid bzhugs gsungs te / de la sha na pa'i gos can 'jam dpal dmar po la sogs pa'i tshan 'brug tsam du tha snyad 'dogs shing ngo bo cig la / mthong tshul tha dad pa 'di lta ste / mo gho ding ri'i sgra tshad. Try translating that one, but meanwhile notice the "Sha-na-pa'i Gos-can" hidden in there. Here's a ref. to an amazing study about it in case anyone is wondering: Matthew Kapstein, The Dialectic of Eternal Heaven: A Tibetan Defense of Mongol Imperial Religion, contained in: M.T. Kapstein and R. Jackson, eds., Mahāmudrā and the Kagyü Tradition, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (Andiast 2011), pp. 259-316. That's all for now. Stop touching your face and wash your hands over and over again! Yours, D

  2. Dear Dan, that was one of the swiftest feedbacks. Thanks! I am sure there are fantastic things written about Śāṇakavāsin or Śāṇavāsin out there. My concern is really about which form of the Sanskrit name can we trust and use for Sha na’i gos can (or Sha na pa’i gos can). We are trying to practice social distancing. Keep well and safe. Warmest, D.

  3. Dear D, I took a look at Kapstein 2011, and on p. 272, it does equate Rad pa’i gos can with Śāṇakavāsin. This would be of interest for the present context. The word “rad pa” is strange. I do not seem to find in common lexicons. Jäschke states that it is for “bgrad pa.” But it seems to make no sense. I would have thought that “rad pa” is simply an error for “ras pa” but a look in the TBRC reveals that “rad pa” could have the meaning of “robes” (e.g. drug sde rad pa sbas so ||). But would this make sense? I wonder how reliable is Kapstein’s equation of Rad pa’i gos can and Śāṇakavāsin. I shall have to wait and see. Keep well and safe. D.

  4. Rad-pa, huh? That's interestingly obscure. TibVocab has this not very enlightening note: •RAD PA btab pa'am tshar cig. Gces 583.2. gos. btab pa'am tshar cig. Btsan-lha. See Schaik, Prayer 208, where it is corrected to this: rid pa. So I was wondering why I don't have that specialized Vinaya dictionary if I never make use of it (it's by Geshé Tsewang Nyima, b. 1937, and it isn't in TBRC), so I looked there and sure enough on p. 955 there is an entry for rad-pa. You want me to photo it and send it? I'm too lazy to type it all out.
    It quotes a work (by Bcom-ldan Rig-ral in 13th century) entitled Sgra'i bstan bcos smra ba rgyan gyi me tog (try TBRC, I think it's been published) where it says it is a word that was used instead of gos, not standardized according to the new language rules... Okay, gotta fly. Have fun with this, as you do. -D