The Nonsense End of the Heart Sutra?

Some commentators and translators of the Heart Sutra, leave the mantra at the end untranslated. So sometimes we find:

“The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is stated thus: gate gate pāragate pārasamgate bodhi svāhā.”

and sometimes we find a variation on:

“The mantra of the perfection of wisdom is stated thus: Gone [gate] gone [gate], gone beyond [pāragate], gone altogether beyond [pārasamgate], O what an awakening [bodhi], all hail [svāhā]!” (this is Edward Conze‘s translation).

The case for the first is clear. The sutra says it’s a mantra, so treat it as a mantra only. Don’t assume it has meaning or that its meaning can be distilled in a translation. It’s just some auspicious words you’re supposed to say to coax your mind toward enlightenment, which is the goal of Buddhism, the end of the cycle of rebirth perpetuated by karma.

But that assumes any possible translation of the mantra does more to distort the text than illuminate it. When translators struggle with this question of translatability, the standard approach is to leave key words that resist translation untranslated and then babble about them in a lengthy footnote or introduction. This is why Michel Foucault wrote, “to comment is to admit by definition an excess of the signified over the signifier.” In other words, commentators see meaning (the signified) that isn’t apparent in the text (the signifier).

But the problem with the Heart Sutra mantra isn’t one vexing word. The words have fairly straightforward meanings (albeit most have several). The problem is that when you try to interpret them all together, the mantra stops making sense. You begin to wonder if the excess of meaning that Foucault locates in the commentator’s mind is actually in the text (Yigal Bronner discusses this in his Extreme Poetry: The South Asian Movement of Simultaneous Narration). Does the text anticipate the commentator or does the commentator simply finesse the text?

Let’s look at the words of the first part of the mantra (“gate gate pāragate pārasamgate…”) and their various translations:

gate: Oh going, oh the way, oh the path, oh happiness, two women went, gone, he goes.

pāra: the further shore, (i.e. a common metaphor for enlightenment/freedom from rebirth), a shore, boundary, furthest limit, beyond, the crossing

samgate: Oh going together, oh knowledge, oh sex, oh harmony, gone away, really gone, had sex, connected, assembled (sam- is a prefix that means together but frequently strengthens what is modifies).

So here are some options for the meaning of the mantra:

  • Oh the going, the going, the going to the further shore, the going together to the further shore!…
  • Two women went. Two women went again. Two women went to the shore. Two women went together to the shore…
  • …Two women went to have sex on the shore…
  • Oh happiness! Oh happiness! Oh the happiness of the other shore! Oh the harmony of the other shore!…
  • Gone, gone, gone beyond, really gone beyond…
  • He goes, he goes, he goes to the crossing, he assembles at the crossing…
  • When two women went…
  • When he goes…

I’ve given a variety of translations to demonstrate the fluidity of the grammar. Even obscure options may in some way be intended by the text.

But some of these translations are just for fun: I think pāra is best glossed as “the further shore” in the sense of a metaphor for enlightenment, although “beyond” has the virtue of being comprehensible to a wider readership. I don’t actually believe the mantra is talking about two women, much less two women having sex. I rather like the translation gate = gone, even though derivation of that translation using Sanskrit grammar is more involved.

Let’s move on to the end of the mantra, “bodhi svāhā“:

bodhi: awakening, enlightenment

svāhā: hail!, all hail!, it is finished, a sacrifice offered to the god Agni (“svāhā” was frequently uttered at the end of Vedic sacrifices), Agni’s wife.

bodhi presents some difficulty here because taken any which way Sanskrit grammar allows, it doesn’t seem to play a function, unless its an archaic Vedic Sanskrit command (i.e. “(you) heed”). It’s like an incomplete word, making it the best argument for the mantra being nonsense. But translators have to do something with it, so they assume it’s an exclamation like the rest of the mantra probably is.

svāhā, meaning “hail!,” is relatively uncomplicated because it’s implausible that it’s referring literally to the Vedic sacrifice, the god Agni, or his wife. Given that the Heart Sutra came out of a Tantric Buddhist tradition, its could be that these gods are invoked more obliquely, in the way of a magic spell. Another possibility is that svāhā is two words–“su āhā,” meaning “he/she said ‘good,'”–but that seems like playing with words.

My parting thought is that the mantra does have some definite meaning having to do with going to enlightenment, but the details of its grammatical form are left obscure. What better way to end the sutra, which famously proclaims, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is just form”? The mantra furnishes a sense of the goal, but is, ultimately, empty of form.

The essay is the result of me brushing off my 8-years lapsed Sanskrit and suggestions from Caley Smith, whose skill as a Sanskritist far surpasses mine. Our discussion is on Facebook.