Pádraic Moran

Lecturer in Classics, University of Galway (Ireland)

Etymological notes on Sanskrit Buddhist terms

Here are some very rough notes on Indo-European roots of Buddhist (and some Hindu) terms of Sanskrit origin that are fairly well-known in English. I couldn’t find a similar list anywhere else (in print or online), so I thought I’d share mine here.

[Latest revision: 1 July 2015.]

  • ámṛita अमृत ‘immortality’
    *– (privative particle); *mer– ‘die’ (cf. Lat. im-mort-ālis, Gk ἀμβροσία ‘that pertaining to the immortals’)
  • avatar, S. avatāra अवतार ‘passes over, descends’
    S. ava– ‘down’; *terH– (Lat. trans, Eng. through)
  • Buddha बुद्ध
    *bheudh- ‘awaken, be aware’ (cf. Eng. bid, bode; note Grassman’s law)
  • Bodhisattva
    bodhi बोधि ‘perfect knowledge’ + sattva सत्त्व ‘existing, true, real’ (< *es– ‘be’)
  • chakra; S. cakra चक्र
    *kwel– ‘turn’ (cf. Lat. col-ere; Gk κύκλ-ος, βού-κολος; Ir. bua-chaill; Eng. wheel)
  • dharma धर्म  ‘law, custom’
    *dher-mn– ‘hold firmly’ (cf. Lat. firmus; Gk θρόνος)
  • guru गुरु ‘heavy, venerable’
    *gwerH– (cf. Lat. grav-is, Gk βαρύς)
  • Hīnayāna हीनयान (deprecating term for Theravada Buddhism)
    S. hīnā ‘inferior’, verb. adj. of jahāti ‘leaves, lets go’
    *ghe-ghē-ti (cf. go, heir, etc.)
  • karma कर्म ‘action, deeds’
    *kwer– ‘do, make’ (cf. Irish cruth)
  • Mahāyāna महायान
    *megh– ‘great’ (Lat. mag-is; Gk μέγας);  yāna ‘vehicle, way’ < *yaH– < *ei– ‘go’ (Lat. ; Gk εἶ-μι; Eng. year)
  • mantra मन्त्र ‘thought’
    *men– ‘mind’ + S. –tra, instrumental suffix
  • nirvāṇa  निर्वाण ‘extinction’
    S. nir– ‘out, away’ + vā-ti ‘blows’ < *weH– (cf. wind, ventum) + ṇa, abstract noun suffix; 涅槃 J. nehan
  • saṃsāra संसार ‘cycle of existence’
    *sem– ‘same’ (cf. similar, simple, etc.); *ser– ‘flow’
  • sūtra सूत्र ‘thread, string’ (hence, ‘rule’)
    *syuH– (cf. sew)
  • svastika स्वस्तिक < S. sv-astí
    *sw- ‘well’; *es– ‘being’
  • tantra तन्त्र ‘loom’ (hence, ‘system’)
    *ten-tro
  • Theravāda (Pali थेरवाद ‘statements of the elders’)
    1) S. sthavira– ‘thick, stout, old’ < steuH– < stā
    2) S. vādah ‘sound, statement’ < *wed– (cf. ode)
  • veda वेद ‘knowledge’
    *woid-o
  • zen 禅 < C. chán < S. dhyāna ध्यान  ‘thought, contemplation’
    *dhyeh2 ‘notice’ (cf. Dor. sāma, Att. sēma ‘sign, token’, with first palatalisation; cf. medyos > L. medius, Att. mésos, Boet. mettos).

Header image: Tokyo, National Museum, N-8 (Hōryū-ji treasure).


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