May 24, 2021

mThar ’gro zhon / bDe spyod

The king to whom Nāgārjuna wrote his letters is said to be Gautamīputra Śatakarnī of the Śātavāhana dynasty. But Tibetan tradition speaks of a king called mThar ’gro zhon or bDe byed. But what exactly is the Sanskrit name behind these? Already in 1886, Wenzel discussed this issue. All sorts of Sanskrit names have been proposed. See Wenzel 1886: 3–5. But we may not discuss these here. To be sure, Tibetan sources do not seem to refer to Gautamīputra and Śatakarnī as the king’s name. (a) It seems reasonable to assume that Tibetan mThar ’gro zhon (Mahāvyutpatti, no. 3654) is a translation of Śātavāhana (cf. Obermiller 1932: 127; Tibskrit; Seyfort Ruegg 2010: 114). Dan Martin states that the Mémorial Sylvain Lévi (p. 301) has a discussion of the Tibetan. Possibly Tibetan translators interpreted śāta in Śātavāhana as being derived from the root śad (MW, s.v. śad (1): “to distinguish one’s self, be eminent or superior, prevail, triumph”). Thus mthar ’gro zhon may mean something like “eminent carriage” or “carriage of the eminent one.” (b) That Tibetan bDe spyod (Ngawang Samten 1991: 41) is also a translation of Sanskrit Śātavāhana seems to require some explanation. In Negi (s.v. bde ba), we see that śāta has also been rendered as bde ba. It also clear that vāhana has been rendered as ’jug pa as in anābhogavāhana (lhun gyis grub par ’jug pa) and in niśchidravāhana (skabs su ’chad pa med par ’jug pa). One can easily consider ’jug pa and spyod pa to be synonymous, both of which can be said to mean “the act of making effort, endeavoring, exertion” (MW, s.v. vāhana). In sum, we shall for now assume that mThar ’gro zhon and bDe spyod are two different translations of the one and the same name Śātavāhana.


  1. Dear D, I fear we might have to go back to a 2nd-century CE inscription on the entranceway to a cave at Nasik, not too far from Mumbai. Luckily it's in Sanskrit. But in it there seems to be mention of one King Gautamiputra Sātakarņi. Isn't this inscription sometimes invoked as evidence in arguments about the historical Nagarjuna and his dates? This must have been studied in some of your older and dustier publications. Anyway, let us know what more you find out. Be well. Yours, D

    1. Dear Dan, I am now wondering if Tibetans translated/interpreted Sātakarṇi (= Śātakarṇi), said to be derived from śatakarṇa (MW), not as “rNa ba brgya pa” (such a name seems to be mentioned in Tāranātha’s collected writings), as one would have expected but rather as “bDe byed.” That śāta can mean “joy/happiness” seems to be unquestionable. But what about karṇi? Could they have read: kara? karin? I am still wondering. Did Tibetans at all talk of Gautamiputra as a name of Nāgārjuna’s friend? I am still wondering … Hope all is well. Warmest, D.