Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “webbed fingers of buddha” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 7 - The webbed fingers of Buddha

Note: this appendix is extracted from Chapter VIII part 4.6:

Mark 5 of 32: “The digits of his hands and feet are webbed.” (jālāṅgulihastapādaḥ)
He is like the king of the swans (haṃsa): when he spreads his fingers, the webs show, when he does not spread his fingers, the webs do not show.

But in Sanskrit, jāla does not mean ‘web’, and Burnouf, reluctant to place the Buddha “in the class of palmipeds”, understands: “The digits of his hands and feet are reticulate.” Foucher (Art Gréco-bouddhique, II, p. 306–312) adopts this interpretation and sees in these networks the lines of a hand “which have always played a part in chiromancy and, in our day, are used in judicial identification.” Moreover, he establishes that, in representations of the Buddha, “the Gandharan sculptors showed only detached hands and hands separated from their sculptures, and did so only when constrained by the special needs of the construction.” This opinion is held by J. N. Banerjea, The webbed fingers of Buddha, IHQ, VI, 1930, p. 717–727. W. F. Stutterheim, Le jālalakṣaṇa de l’image du Bouddha, Act. Or., VII, 1928, p. 232–237, referring to a passage of the Śakuntalā, claims that jāla means the red lines of tha hand held up to the light of the sun. A. K. Coomaraswamy, The webbed finger of Buddha, IHQ, VII, 1931, p. 365–366, accepts Stutterheim’s translation in the original meaning of jāla and explains, along with Foucher and Banerjea, the semantic shift of jāla, in the sense of membrane, as a misinterpretation of the sculptures. Answer of J. N. Banerjea, The webbed fingers of Buddha, IHQ, VII, 1931, p. 654–656..

Nevertheless, the texts are explicit. Without saying anything about the stereoptyped Tibetan translation: phyags daṅ zhabs dra bas ḥbrel pa, “his hands and feet are attached by a membrane”, the old translators and commentators agree in attributing to the Buddha hands and feet like “the king of the swans”, and Senart, Légende du Bouddha, p. 145, was perhaps correct to understand ‘membrane’. Here are some references:

Dīrghāgama, third mark (T 1, p. 5b: His hands and feet have a netted membrane (wang man: 120 and 8; 120 and 11) like the king of the geese (ngo wang).

– Madhyamāgama, T 26, P. 686b: His hands and feet have a netted membrane (wang man) like the king of the geese (yen wang).

– Mūlasarvāstivādin Vinaya, sixth mark (T 1450, p. 108c): His hands and feet have a netted membrane (wang man).

– Lalitavistara of Divākara, thirtieth mark (T 187, p. 557a): The digits of his hands and feet all have a membranous net (wang man: 120 and 8; 177 and 7).

– Abhiniṣkramaṇasūtra, seventh mark (T190, p. 692c): The space between the digits of the Kumāra’s hands and feet is netted (lo wang).

– Pañcaviṃśati, third mark (T 220, vol. 6, p. 967b): between each of the digits of the Bhagavat’’s hands and feet there is a netted membrane (man wang) like in the king of the geese (yen wang).

– Daśasāhasrikā, p. 108: tasya hastapādayor jālāny avanaddhāni yādṛśam anyapuruṣāṇāṃ nāsti.

– Vibhāṣā, sixth mark (T 1543,p. 888a): His hands and feet are marked with a netted membrane (wang man), that is to say, between the digits of the Buddha’s hands and feet there is a net-membrane like the digit of the king of the geese (ngo wang).

Aloka, p. 918: rājahaṃsavaj jālāvanaddhāṅgulipāṇipādatā.

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