Bhoh as a linguistic marker of Brahmanical identity.

Author:Brick, David

All classical Indologists, even the most inexperienced, will undoubtedly recognize the Sanskrit word bhoh and its Prakrit equivalent bho as common particles that speakers in our pre-modern sources frequently use when respectfully addressing other people or groups of people. Moreover, many will also know the etymological reason why bhoh is typically used as a particle of respectful address: It is a frozen, contracted form derived from the old masc. vocative singular of the honorific 2nd-person pronoun bhavant (itself contracted from bhagavant), as recognized by W. D. Whitney (1889: 169) more than a century ago in his still authoritative Sanskrit Grammar and by Indian grammarians more than two millennia before that. (1) Beyond these basic facts of usage and etymology, however, no modern scholar seems to have noticed the considerable cultural importance that many of our pre-modern sources apparently ascribe to the word bhoh. Specifically, as I will show, a number of Buddhist texts, as well as at least a few Brahmanical ones, clearly regard use of the word bhoh as somehow especially characteristic of Brahmin speech. Most early Brahmanical works, however, seem to have a slightly different understanding of the particle's sociolinguistic significance, for they apparently consider both uttering bhoh and being addressed with it to be a sign of membership in an elite fraternity, whose general membership requirements are male gender, twice-born social status, and competence in the Sanskrit language. It is, therefore, the purpose of this article to examine the use of bhoh in these sources and to establish in as much detail as possible the connection that it bore to Brahmins, Sanskrit, and twice-born status in early South Asia. In the conclusion, an attempt will be made to account for the differing understandings of bhoh in our sources. In this way, this article aims to help scholars better understand not only the nuances of an extremely common Sanskrit and Prakrit word, but also the sociolinguistics of Indian antiquity and the diverse ways in which Brahmins publicly displayed their identities during a seminal period of South Asian history.


Buddhist sources perhaps most clearly indicate a connection between Brahmins and bhoh in the following verse, which is here cited in its Pali version:

na caham brahmanom brumi yonijam mattisambhavam | bhovadi nama so hoti sace hoti sakihcano | akincanam anadanan? tam aharn brumi brahmanom || I do not call someone who was simply born of a certain womb or originated from a certain mother a Brahmin. He is called a bhovadin ('speaker of bhoh'), if he has worldly attachments. I call only that man who is free from worldly attachments and grasping a Brahmin. Significantly, this verse is found in three canonical Pali texts: the Dhammapada (396), Suttanipata (620), and Majjhimanikaya (98). Moreover, it occurs in both the Gandhari Dharmapada (2) and the Udanavarga. (3) Therefore, versions of it exist not only in Pali, but also in Northwestern Prakrit and Sanskrit. Thus, it was apparently at one time a rather popular Buddhist verse that was by no means unique to the Theravada school. In it, as one can see, the Buddha engages in his common practice of redefining a Brahmin as any person who exemplifies certain widely revered virtues, rather than as a member of a particular sociological group. Specifically, he explains that he considers a true Brahmin to be anyone who is free from worldly attachments and grasping, whereas he refers to a person who is simply a member of the hereditary group usually termed "Brahmin" as a bhovadin, which here must literally denote someone who frequently or characteristically says bho. And the early commentaries on the Pali Dhammapada and Suttanipata explicitly confirm this rather obvious interpretation of the word bhovadin:

bhovadi ti yo pana amantanadisu bho bho ti vatva vicaranto bhovadi nama so hoti | (Dhammapadatthakatha on DhP 396) As for the term "bhovadin," a bhovadin is someone who wanders about saying "bho, bho," when addressing people and the like. imina va yonijamattisambhavamattena brahmanam na brumi | kasma | yasma "bho bho " ti vacanamattena afinehi sakiiicanehi visitthatta bhovadi nama so hoti sace hoti sakificano | (Paramatthajotika on SN 620) I do not call someone a Brahmin simply because he was born in a certain womb or originated from a certain mother. Why? Because his character is distinguished from others who have worldly attachments merely by the fact that he says, "bho bho." [Thus, the text says:] He is called a bhovadin, if he has worldly attachments. From this it is clear that at least according to this verse and the classical commentaries thereon, the vocative particle bho was a distinctive feature of Brahmin speech. Beyond this, the total contents of the verse also suggest that for Brahmins, uttering bho was somehow connected with their strong--and for Buddhists fundamentally misguided--sense of pride in their biological ancestry.

Moving beyond this single passage, the term bhovadin also occurs at least a few other places within the Pali canon, always as a designation for a Brahmin. For instance, the Mahaniddesa and Cullaniddesa gloss the word brahmana ('Brahmins') as bhovadika ('those who say bho') in several places, (4) suggesting that bhovadin was at the time of the composition of these early commentaries a commonly understood term for Brahmin, since it is used as a gloss of brahmana. Furthermore, the following Jataka verse (Fausboll, vol. 6, vs. 904 [Bhuridattajataka]) uses bhovadin as a derogatory term of reference for Brahmin priests:

sace hi so sujjhati yo hanati hato pi so saggam upeti thanam | bhovadi bhovadina marayeyyum ye capi tesani abhisaddaheyyum || If a man who kills is purified and he who is killed attains a place in heaven, then bhovadins should kill bhovadins and those who have faith in them. Here one finds a biting and rather humorous criticism of the Vedic institution of animal sacrifices: If Brahmanical doctrine holds true and the performers of these sacrifices are purified of sin while the sacrificial victims go to heaven, then for everyone's benefit Brahmin priests should logically kill other Brahmins and non-Brahmins who believe this! Both this and the previously discussed passages make evident that in the minds of the authors of at least certain early Buddhist texts, bho was a particle of address used mainly or perhaps even exclusively by Brahmins.

Moreover, the usage of bho in actual addresses within at least parts of the Pali canon confirms this. For example, a careful search of the Suttanipata, generally regarded as one of the very earliest surviving Buddhist texts (Norman 1983: 63-70), reveals that the particle bho occurs in seventeen separate passages. (5) And in twelve of these passages the only person who says bho is explicitly identified as a Brahmin, (6) while in another three the only bhovadin who may not himself be a Brahmin is an ascetic of the matted-hair (jatila) type named Keniya, who specifically describes himself as a follower of Brahmins. (7) Furthermore, in one of the two remaining passages, the speaker is unidentified, but the speech comprises gossip that somehow reaches the ears of the Brahmanical ascetic Keniya, suggesting perhaps a Brahmanical speaker. (8) Thus, it is striking that there is only a single passage in the entire Suttanipata where the particle bho occurs and is apparently not part of the speech of either a Brahmin or a Brahmanical ascetic. And it is noteworthy that in this passage, bho is not used as an address or even in uttered speech at all. Instead, the particle occurs as part of an expression of astonishment in the mind of the mendicant Sabhiya:

atha kho sabhiyassa paribbajakassa etad ahosi--acchariyam vata bho abbhutam vata bho | yam vataham anriesu samanabrahmanesu okasamattam pi nalattham tam me idam samanena gotamena okasakammam katan ti | (Suttanipata 512)

Then this (thought) occurred to the mendicant Sabhiya: "It's wondrous, indeed! It's marvelous, indeed! The ascetic Gautama has here given me the permission (to freely ask questions), which I could not obtain amongst other ascetics and Brahmins." Hence, within the Suttanipata at least, there is a rather salient connection between Brahmins and the utterance of the word bho, although given how frequently the Buddha is addressed with bho in the text, one does not apparently have to be a Brahmin or even a follower of Brahmins to be addressed with the word.

In addition to this, one final and especially strong piece of evidence that bho is a linguistic marker of Brahmanical identity within the Suttanipata comprises the numerous occurrences of a passage that most frequently reads

abhikkantam bho gotama abhikkantam bho gotama | seyyatha pi bho gotarna nikujjitam va ukkujjeya paticchannam va vivareyya mufhassa va maggam acikkheya andhakare va telapajjotam dhareyya cakkhumanto rupani dakkhinti ti evam evam bhota gotamena anekapariyayena dhammo pakasito | It's wonderful, Sir Gautama! It's wonderful, Sir Gautama! The honorable Gautama has revealed the law in many ways, just as one might set upright what is overturned, or uncover what is hidden, or explain the way to a confused man, or bring an oil-lamp into a dark place so that beings with sight might see objects. As cited above, this passage occurs six times within the Suttanipata (82, 142, 315, 486, 509, and 656), in every case as part of a stock formula that a Brahmin recites, when he has come to accept the profound wisdom of the Buddha's teachings. However, this same passage also occurs a seventh time within the Suttanipata (547), in this case when the apparently nonBrahmanical ascetic Sabhiya is impressed after hearing the Buddha's words. And given the evidence I have presented, it is almost certainly significant that when Sabhiya repeats the above formula, he replaces the word bho with bhante, another particle of respectful address, but one...

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