On Gāhāsattasaī W191

Verse 191 in the Gāhāsattasaī reads:

ciraḍiṁ pi aṇāantō lōā lōēhĩ gōravabbhahiā
sōṇāratulē vva ṇirakkharā vi khandhēhĩ ubbhanti

People who don’t even know the alphabet [?]
are popularly taken to be worthy of honor.
They’re like a goldsmith’s scales:
even though they are unlettered,
they’re carried on one’s shoulders.

The comparison in this verse depends on two things: a goldsmith’s scale should be (a) without letters, and (b) held on the shoulders. Regarding (a), Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma discusses this verse in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Jaina Studies Online, where he surveys ancient balances, with a focus on the devices described in Pālitta’s Jōisakaraṇḍagaṁ or Jyōtiṣkaraṇḍakam. The form of the steelyard described in Pālitta’s text has no letters. The gradation marks on the scale of the beam are marked with lines representing weights (measured in karṣās and palas), and the marks for 5, 15, 30 and 50 palas should be decorated with a nandī, which in Sarma’s interpretation is a floral decoration. The other lines will be straight. The goldsmith’s balance in this text will be similarly marked. Regarding (b), none of the steelyards illustrated in Sarma’s article (from Gandhara, Mathura, and Nagarjunakonda) are actually carried on the shoulder: they are held, by the hand, from an adjustable loop on the beam.

The other interesting thing about this verse is the word ciraḍiṁ. Nobody knows what it means. The interpretatio ad sensum is “alphabet” (Gaṅgādhara says: siddhir astv ityādi varṇāvalīm). Bhuvanapāla glosses it as “moving the lips” (ōṣṭhasphuraṇa-), but gives it the same interpretation (“if they can’t even move their lips, then they are a long way from eloquence”). It seems likely that the word comes from a Dravidian source. The initial c- makes it likely that it was a Dravidian language with a palatalization rule (i.e., Tamil-Malayalam and Telugu), rather than, say Kannada. And why should a word putatively meaning “alphabet” have been borrowed into Prakrit? One possibility is that it doesn’t exactly mean “alphabet,” but some other aspect of literate culture that would motivate the simile in the following line. Could it come from Tamil cīr-aṭi, i.e., a metrical line (aṭi) made out of repeating metrical units (cīr)? The cīr of Tamil verse is, after all, very similar to the gaṇa- in Prakrit verse.

There are a few variants: ciraḍiṁ and ciriḍiṁ; abbhahiā (i.e., abhyadhika- or abhyarhita-) and agghaviā (i.e., *arghāpita- or *arghyāpita-).