Sanskrit into Tibetan translation mistakes by Natalia S. Yakhontova

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I’m not going to speak about the meaning of the epithets of Buddha since it’s the field for Buddhists or Buddhologists to study neither of whom am I. The aim of my paper is to dwell on two points:

1. The Sanskrit epithets of Buddha were composed following the same pattern and the same tradition as epithets of characters from famous Indian epics such as Mahabharata and famous Sanskrit lexicons such as Amarakosha dictionary. Some were just borrowed from them (I mean from famous characters).

2. While translated from Sanskrit into Tibetan epithets of Buddha were translated in different ways, one Sanskrit epithet may have more than one variant of its translation. As the result the number of epithets for Buddha in Tibetan if compared to original Sanskrit list is more than twice larger.


Some introductory remarks:

There exist epithets of a Buddha (that is any buddha), the Buddha (that is Shakyamuni) and proper names (not epithets!) of thousands of Buddhas. Only the first two are of interest for us.

In local traditions the word name was used to describe the phenomenon - the word epithet was introduced by European scholars much later, there are many other possible ways of caling this phenominon – synonyms, sub-names, poetical expressions. None of the definitions is one hundred percent perfect since the words that here we call epithets are used instead of their referents, which is not how the real epithets are used.

The sources used are the following:

First of all so called lexicons – a special kind of dictionaries which being examples of poetical pieces themselves aim to be a source of inspiration and a kind of poetical reference book for other poets. Epithets are organised there according to subjects: that means that all epithets for one person are given as a list. Not only characters from mythology can have epithets but animals, plants and natural phenomenon as well.

Two the most well-known Indian authors of such dictionaries are Amarasimha who wrote Amarakośa dictionary (AK) (8th century) and Hemacandra the author of Abhihānacintāmani dictionary (12th century).

Both lexicons have separate lists of epithets both for a Buddha and the Buddha (AK 18 and 6, Hem 32 and 8 correspondingly).

There are three translations of Amarakośa dictionary into Tibetan.

Later the dictionaries of this kind were written in Tibetan the most well-known being pb|-mw!-H-Nl- mkhas-pa’i rna-rgyan “The Decoration of the Wise Man’s Ears” dictionary. Recently (1991 and 1997) two other Tibetan lexicons were published in China. They are: shes kun ‘grol “Knowing one liberats all” (by Rnam rgyal tshe ring) and “The Treasury of Words” (by Bu chung).

From Tibet this Indian tradition came to Mongolia. A good number of poetical words from Sanskrit lexicons are found in the Tibetan-Mongolian dictionary by Sumatiratna. Sumatiratna is the name of a Buriat scholar Rinchen Nomtoev who worked at the end of 19th century. Poetical names are given in alphabetic order along with ordinary words. Lists in modern dictionaries (Tibetan-English by Das, Tibetan-Chinese in three volumes published in Beiging) actually repeat that in “The Decoration of the Wise Man’s Ears”. Roehrih’s 11 volume dictionary stands apart, it is an exeption - the number of epithets there exeeds all other sources, but they stand in alphabetic order and it is difficult to take stock of all epithets.

One dictionary is of a different type - terminological Mahavyutpati dictionary which was composed as Sanskrit-Tibetan and later its Mongolian translation was made. In Mahavyutpati there are 78 epithets of Buddha both for a Buddha and the Buddha as one list.


If put together the sets of epithets for Buddha from different sources in Sanskrit give less than one hundred (about 80) while in Tibetan twice as many (about 200).


Actually that large number can be found only in lexicons while in texts (Sanskrit, Tibetan and Mongolian) you will only come across the most common ones such as Skr. Bhagavat ‘victorious one’, Skr. Tathāgata ‘one who comes in the same way’, Skr. Arhat ‘one who has overcome the enemy’, Skr. Sugata ‘one who went to happiness’.

Translations into English which I give are mostly borrowed from Sir Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English dictionary and on-line Nitartha Tibetan-English dictionary.


After this introduction we proceed to paragraph No 1

One of the most popular ways of composing epithets for the characters of the Indian mythology such as gods Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Kamadeva, Skanda, planet-gods (Sun, Moon, Mars, Venus etc.) is to call them after their relations mainly their parents and spouses (e.g. Vishnu is called Śri-pati ‘the master (or husband) of Shri’, the planet god Venus is called Bhārgava ‘descendant of Bhrigu’ (Bhrigu is the name of a sage whose son is Venus) and so on and so on - it is a very popular way of giving names to persons.

Following this pattern the Buddha Shakyamuni has several epithets naming him after his relatives – ‘Son of Shuddhodana’ (Skr. Śauddhodani or Śuddhodana-suta), Skr. Śuddhodana being the name of Siddharta’s father.

One of his ancestors was Ikshvaku, so Shakyamuni is called Skr. Iksvāku-kula-nandana ‘Son from Ikshvaku family’.

The origin of Siddharta’s ancestors (and therefore his own) is traced to the famous Solar race of Indian Mythology and it is shown in two following epithets: Skr. Arka-bandhu ‘Sun’s relative’ and Skr. Sūrya-vamśu ‘One belonging to the Solar race’.

His mother’s name (Māya) is used in his epithet Skr. Māya-suta ‘Maya’s son’.

His brother’s name - in Skr. Devadatta-agraja ‘The elder brother of Devadatta’

His son’s name is used in Skr. Rāhula-sū ‘The father of Rahula’


Epithets characterise characters’ appearance, features, abilities and great deeds. For example Shiva is called Skt. Tri-locana ‘Three-eyed’ and a Buddha is called Skr. Tri-kāya “Having three bodies” or Skr. Daśa-bala ‘Having ten powers’. Most of the epithets of Buddha show his abilities.

Great deeds of gods mostly deal with fighting some evil asuras (that is evil spirits or demons). Each has fighted several of them. And this type of epithets is widespread.

Buddha has one epithet of this type - it is Skr. Māra-jit ‘Conqueror of Mara’.


Not only ideas or patterns but whole epithets originally belonging to other characters were borrowed to characterize Buddha.

The following epithets of Buddha are not unique, are not exclusevely Buddha’s, they have their previuos “owners”:

Skt. Bhagavat ‘One who has been victorious’ is Shiva

Skt. Munindra ‘The chief of the Munis’ is Shiva

Skt. Vināyaka ‘Removing the obstacles’ is Ganesha (Shiva’s son)

Skt. Narottama ‘The most exellent man’ is Vishnu

Skt. Sarvajña ‘All-knowing’ is Shiva

Skt. Devatīdeva ‘The God surpassing all other gods’ is Shiva and Vishnu Skt. Māharsi ‘A Great rishi’ is Shiva

Skt. Vibhū ‘the encompassing lord’ is Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, Sun, Kubera and others.


2. Now we proceed to No 2 to seek for reasons why the number of Tibetan epithets of Buddha is two times larger than the number of Sanskrit ones. Several reasons explain it.

In Sanskrit a lot of epithets are compound words (so-called composits). There are several types of composites each with certain grammar peculiarities. Two of them are important for us.

In one type there exist case relations between the parts of composita but they only are implied but not expressed with case suffixes. E.g. Skr. Munindra ‘The Chief of munis’ is translated into Tibetan in two ways Tib. thub pa’i dbang po (j$o-mw!-kod-m#-) and thub dbang (j$o-kod-). In the first translation there is a Genitive particle (‘i) whereas in the second there is none.

The same Genitive case is marked with a particle in Tib. chos kyi rgyal po f#|-Ð!-Nz-m#-) ‘The king of dharma’ and not marked in Tib. chos rgyal (f#|-Nz-) with the same meaning (both are translations of Skr. Dharma-rāja ‘The king of dharma’).

The following is one more example of two Tibetan versions both translating one Sanskrit epithet (Skr. Loka-jyesñha ‘The lord of the world’): Tib. 'jig rten gyi gtso bo (wg!c-F"l-Ò!-cq£-o#-) id. and Tib. 'jig rten gtso bo (wg!c-F"l-cq£-o#-) id.

The other type implies the idea of possession. E.g. for Skr. Daśa-bala ‘Ten powers’ the meaning is ‘One who has ten powers’, though in Sanskrit nothing indicates the meaning of possession. In Tibetan translation it can be either expressed or not. E.g. Tib. stobs bcu ba (Ä#o|-of-o-)‘Ten powers’ and Tib. stobs bcu mnga’ ba (Ä#o|-of-pdw-o-) ‘One having ten powers’. The first Tibetan translation is just word for word translation while the second translates the meaning.

Another example is Tib. stobs che ba (Ä#o|-f"-o-)‘A great power’ and Tib. stobs chen ldan pa (Ä#o|-f"l-Vl-m-) ‘One who has a great power’ (Skr. Mahā-bala ‘One who has a great power’).

Skr. su-gata ‘One who went to happiness’ is translated into Tibetan as Tib. bde gshegs (ok"-c{"c|-) ‘One who has passed to bliss’. There are two other variants of Tibetan translation with the same meaning: Tib. bder gshegs pa (ok"y-c{"c|-m-) and Tib. bde bar gshegs pa (ok"-oy-c{"c|-m-). The difference between these three translations is only in adding a particle (or a suffix) forming an adverb.

Skr. vināyaka ‘A leader’ has two translations following the same pattern: Tib. rnam ’dren (Hp-wõ"l-) and Tib. rnam par ‘dren (Hp-my-wõ"l-).

Translators into Tibetan made mistakes, which was another cause of increase in number of variants in Tibetan epithets. Two years ago in this very room I spoke about the origine of some mistakes made in translations of epithets. I suppose it is available on the Internet. There are some inaccurate translations among Buddha’s epithets as well.

E.g. On a Tibetan list there is Tib. ston pa thub (Ä#l-m-j$o-) which actually consists of two separate epithets. They were combined in one epithet in Tibetan because in Amarakosha dictionary they are written one after another (Skr. śāstÉ ‘A teacher’ and Muni ‘A sage’).

Another Tibetan expression wrongly considered to be an epithet and put on a list while originally it was a commentary to Buddhas epithet “The conqueror of Mara”. In the dictionary “Decoration to the Wise Man Ears” it is said that Buddha had conquered four Maras and their names are given. The phrase bdud bzhi bcom pa (ok‡k-ou!-oe#p-m-) is just put before the names.


Some Tibetan translators translated following different meanings of Sanskrit words. Skr. loka-jyesñha was translated in three different ways:

1. Tib. 'jig rten gyi gtso bo (wg!c-F"l-Ò!-cq£-o#-) ‘The lord of the world’

2. Tib. rkang gnyis gtso bo (Ad-ch!|-cq£-o#-) ‘The lord of two-legged’

3. Tib. 'gro ba'i bla ma (wò#-ow!-\-p-) ‘The lord of beings ’

It was possible because Skr. loka has two meanings ‘world’ and ‘people’

The second part (Skr. jyesñha) was translated by two different Tibetan words, both of which have the same meaning “Lord” while Tib. bla-ma can mean not only “Lord” but “a guru” (that is “a teacher”) as well.


Some Tibetan translators chose different words with close meanings.

Skr. Nara-uttama ‘The best man’ was translated as Tib. mi mchog (p!-pf#c-) id. and Tib. rkang gnyis mchog Ad-ch!|-pf#c- ‘The best among the two-legged’

Skr. Sarva-jña ‘All-knowing’ was translated as Tib. thams cad mkhyen (jp|-ek-pÑ"l-) ‘All-knowing’ but three other translations exist: Tib. kun mkhyen (a‡l-pÑ"l-) id. Tib. kun shes (a‡l-{"|-) id. Tib. thams cad mkhan pa (jp|-ek-pbl-m- )id.

Just the same Sanskrit word (sarva) is translated in the same two ways in another epithet

Skr. Sarva-darsin ‘All-seeing’:

Tib. kun gdzigs (a‡l-cv!c|-) id. and Tib. thams cad gdzigs (jp|-ek-cv!c|-) id.

A third version of its translation is Tib. thams cad mthong (jp|-ek-pj#d-) id.


Here are two other examples:

Skt. AghahantÉ ‘Overcomer of sin’ has two translations which are synonymous: Tib. sdig ‘joms (Å!c-wg#p|-) and Tib. sdig bcom (Å!c-oe#p-)

One more example is Skr. Loka-jit ‘Conqueror of the world’, which is translated in two ways:

Tib. 'jig rten 'dul (wg!c-F"l-wk‡z-) ‘tamer of the world’ and Tib. 'jig rten rgyal ba po (wg!c-F"l-Nz-o-m#-) ‘conqueror of the world’.

ok‡k-ou!-oe#p-m- ‘A conqueror of four maras’ bdud bzhi bcom pa

I’ve mentioned epithets which say about Buddha’s fight with the evil spirit - Mara. The most often occuring of them is Skr. māra-jit ‘A conqueror of Mara’. Its Tibetan translation is Tib. bdud 'dul (ok‡k-wk‡z-) ‘A tamer of Mara’ This Sanskrit epithet says about a single Mara while in Tibetan the number of spirits increased up to four and their names are given in the commentary to the text of “Decoration to the Wise Man’s Ears”. There exists another Tibetan translation of the same epithet where a different form of the same verb (Imperative) is used – thul (j$z-) - Tib. bdud thul (ok‡k-j$z-) with the same meaning.

The same event is expressed by Skr. Anaïga-jit ‘A conqueror of the bodiless’ – its Tibetan translation is Tib. lus med thul (z$|-p"k-j$z-) ‘A tamer of the bodiless’. “Bodiless” is an epithet of Kamadeva - the god of love in Indian mythology. Shiva reduced Kama to ashes with his third eye and since then Kamadeva was called “Bodiless”. And Shiva is called Skr. Anaïga-asuhÉd ‘The enemy of Kama (Bodiless)’. Consequently Buddha iherited his epithet from Shiva and in this epithet Kama became Mara.

To sum up, some lists of the epithets in Tibetan dictionaries may have two or even three epithets wich originally were one in Sanskrit. That’s why their number in Tibetan is larger than in Sanskrit.


Tibetan texts were translated into Mongolian which gave another branching:

Tib. 'jig rten gyi gtso bo (wg!c-F"l-Ò!-cq£-o#- ) ‘The world’s principal’ has two Mongolian translations: Mong. yertünčü-yin erkin ‘The world’s principal’ and Mong. yertünčü-yin oki ‘The best in the world’. Anyway all epithets which exist in Tibetan or in Mongolian can be traced back to Sanskrit sources namely lexicons.