The Jain Prakrit Origin of the Vetāla

Posted: 02.05.2017
Updated on: 03.05.2017

Centre of Jaina Studies Newsletter: SOAS - University of London


The etymology, and hence the basic meaning, of the word Vetāla is unknown. The demon's representation in art is particularly gruesome. On the basis of its most explicit literary application, the Sanskrit Vetālapañcaviṃśatikā stories, it was described in the BöhtlingkRoth dictionary (1871), and was still so glossed in Mayrhofer's etymological dictionary (KEWA, II, 1976), as a demon that takes possession of dead bodies. In Wikipedia it is being defined even more specifically as 'ghost-like... spirits inhabiting cadavers and charnel grounds. These corpses may be used as vehicles for movement (as they no longer decay while so inhabited); but a vetala may also leave the body at will'. This Vetala was necessarily depicted as an emaciated corpse, leaving to the imagination the disembodied spirit within.

This is in spite of Monier-Williams's more guarded 'a kind of demon... (esp. one occupying a dead body)'. He and Mayrhofer gave due prominence to the still more non-committal nature of the earliest attestations. The mātṛ Vetālajananī (MBh. 9.45.13) is one of a large number of supernatural beings summoned to combat Asuras, and described collectively as ranging from tree- and springdwellers to the inhabitants of crossroads and cemeteries. The Vetālas are variously listed among such supernatural beings in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (2.10.39... vetālān yātudhānān grahān api; 7.8.38 yakṣāḥ kiṃpuruṣās, tāta, vetālāḥ siddhakiṃnarāḥ); Vetalī is an epithet of Durgā in the Harivaṃśa. On the other hand, a comparable name, Vaitāla (or Vetāla) in the Bhāgavata and Vaitālika (or Vaitālaki) in the Viṣṇu Purāṇa, appears in the list of transmitters of the Ṛgveda; Vetālabhaṭṭa is named as Nītiśāstrin and jewel of Vikramāditya's court; and the Pali Vetālika, Epic Vaitālika, and Classical Vaitālīya attend upon royalty. The rite called vetāla- or vaitālīyakarman was understood by M. R. Bhat in his edition and translation of Bṛhatsaṃhitā as 'the 'raising of goblins' (vetālotthāpana in Rājataraṅgiṇī): a simpler and perhaps more original version of the notion, 'raising of the dead' (matasarīruṭṭhāpanaṃ) appears in the Pali commentary on vetālam in DN 1.6, where it in fact features amongst a list of innocent but proscribed entertainments. In Jātaka VI, 277, the vaitālika similarly accompanies māyākārā and sobhikā, illusionists and showmen.

Can it be that a single etymology links these disparate phenomena? That the solution is to be found in Jain Prakrit should have been clear from the start. The Nijjutti on Sūyagaḍaṅga I, 2, explains the name of the chapter, Veyāliyaṃ, as signifying both a composition in Vaitālīya metre and vaidārika 'destruction (of Karma)'. Sanskrit dal- is a dialect form of dṛ- (Mayrhofer, KEWA, II, 24), presumably Magadhi Prakrit. In reporting this, it did not occur to Jacobi to infer that, if vaidārika could appear as veyāl-, it would readily appear also by a Sanskritization as the demonic and prosodic vetāl-.

The etymology of the demonic epithet vetāla is still deemed to be in doubt. The Sanskrit tradition offered 'abiding in the dead': aveta (casuistically identified with preta 'dead') + ālaya 'domain'. Via the literary association of the demon with decomposition, H. Petersson in 1922 sought a connection with Anglo-Saxon wīdl 'filth', English widdle. J. Charpentier suggested a *vaitāḍa 'dashing to pieces', but in possible consonance with PTSD ('of dialectical origin') he was willing to allow it to be non-Aryan. Association with Jain Prakrit veyāliya obviates such suggestions. Sanskrit vidalanam 'bursting (intrans. and trans.)' and vidāraka, vaidārika 'destructive' give the basis. The use of -īya in chapter names, especially in Uttarajjhāyā, and the pervasive ta-śruti of Jain linguistic tradition explain Sanskritized vaitãlīya. The commentaries explain Veyāliya, the name of the second chapter of Sūyagaḍaṅga, as treating of vidālanīyaṃ karma 'the karma that is to be destroyed' and karma-vidalanam 'the destruction of karma', and the text sums itself up in the final verse of the first lesson as a definition of veyāliya-magga 'the path of such destruction'. It can then be that the appellation and name Vetāla has been inferred from the adjective, Sanskritized as vaitālika, and employed either as an epithet for a class of demons or as a synonym of Vaitālika as a designation for Vedic and Shastric teachers in the sense of destroyers of error. Ad Bṛhatsaṃhitā 87.12, M. R. Bhat reported a gloss on vaitālika as 'naked preceptor' (though the context implies rather percussionists); and Vaitālīyakarma and Vetāla-karma as the art of conjuring can represent a contamination of Jain kamma-veyāliya and veyālaṇīyaṃ kammaṃ due to the proliferation of Vetāla mythology.

That vaitālīya, the name of the originally rare metre in which the Veyāliyajjhayaṇa is composed, is really a different word, as Jacobi thought, is open to doubt. The chapter could have given its name to its metre, rather than have punningly adopted the metre so named, for it is hardly likely that a complete coalescence of *vaidālika with vaitālīya could have occurred as early as the composition of Sūyagaḍaṅga. There seems to be no reason to suppose that the watchman and panegyrist, the vetālika of Dīghanikāya and the vaitālika of later Epic, are in any way associated with that particular metre. Perhaps he takes his name rather from the inclusion of Vetāla among the supernatural attendants on the gods, coupled with the tendency (in Dīghanikāya and elsewhere) to connect the word with percussion, despite the derogatory implication 'breaking the rhythm' of the word vitāla.

Since Alsdorf has shown that Āryā verses are always intrusive in the older canon, the inclusion of Vaitālīya metre in the canonical text Sūyagaḍaṅga is further confirmation that Vaitālīya is the older invention of the two. After all, Vaitālīya with its two    ̆  ̅   ̆  ̅  cadences largely resembles a fairly common Ṛgvedic Anuṣṭubh combination, whereas Āryā, with  twice  ̆  ̅  ̅  ̅  as its prevalent cadences, unheard of in conjunction in the Anuṣṭubh, implies deliberate innovation. Since metres grow, rather than shrink, the Anuṣṭubh seems the likely model for both. By completing a fourth gaṇa, and resolution of long syllables, the Vaitālīya evolved a 7½ gaṇa structure with Jagatī rhythm for the most part, and retaining amphibrachs (˘ ̅  ˘) in the third and seventh gaṇas: it tended towards:

atha tasya vivāhakautukaṃ    lalitaṃ bibhrata eva pārthivaḥ    (Raghuvaṃśa 8.1)
˘   ˘   ̅  /   ˘   ˘  ̅ /  ˘  ̅   ˘ /  ̅   (˘  ˘) / ̅  ̅ /  ˘  ˘ ̅ /  ˘  ̅   ˘ /  ̅

Apart from the resolutions, and completion of a fourth gaṇa, it remains a Ṛgvedic Anuṣṭubh. The Āryā produced in the end a contrasting result, 7½ gaṇas with the probability of amphibrachs in all the even gaṇas, and no consistent tendency to complete a fourth gaṇa;  finally a shift of the caesura obscured its pseudo-Anuṣṭubh origin:

ālāṇakhambhabaddho   ciṭṭhai kaṭṭheṇa giṇhae bhoge  (Maṇivaicariya 286 ab)
 ̅  ̅/  ˘    ̅     ˘  /  ̅   ̅ /     ̅ (˘ ˘) / ̅  ̅ /   ˘  ̅   ˘/ ̅    ̅ / ̅

āgamma so nisanno    khaṭṭāe, tīĕ bhāsio: sāmi  (ibid. 655 ab)
  ̅   ̅  /  ˘  ̅   ˘ / ̅   ̅ /    ̅ (̅)/ ̅ ̅/  ˘ ̅  ˘/  ̅   ̅ /  ˘

eyassa vāhaṇeṇaṃ    jeṇa avassaṃ bhaveyavvaṃ  (ibid. 291 cd)
 ̅   ̅ /  ˘  ̅  ˘ /  ̅   ̅ /     ̅   ˘  ˘ / ̅ ̅ /      ˘ / ̅    ̅ /  ̅

āṇesu tena tatto    purīĕ ghosāviyaṃ etthaṃ  (ibid. 1068 cd)
 ̅  ̅ /  ˘ ̅   ˘ / ̅ ̅  /   ˘ ̅ ˘ /  ̅  ̅ /  ˘ / ̅    ̅ /  ̅

Survival of an Anuṣṭubh cadence in both cases means that there is really no call to distinguish between Āryā as gaṇacchandas and Vaitālīya as mātrāchandas.

In the absence of any other plausible etymology, there is thus reason to believe that the Vaitālīya metre takes its name from the subject-matter of its most important attestation in Jain literature, i.e., the destruction (vidāraṇa) of Karma. It is precisely in Jain Prakrit that we find, coupled with vestiges of Magadhi -l- for -r-, an orthographic -t- replacing -d- and the other lost intervocalic stop consonants. Appropriately, the early canonical text Uttarajjhāyā 20, v. 44, presents the veyāla as a purely destructive demon, murderous if not exorcised (avipanna). The word vetāla would be basically a conventional epithet that, like so many essential epithets of gods and demons, has taken on a measure of individuality, in this case a corpse-haunting spirit, beneficent when propitiated. Durgā's epithet Vetālī in Harivaṃśa would survive more authentically in the demoness Vidāri-nāmā of Bṛhatsaṃhitā 53.83 (-ri is for the sake of an amphibrach gaṇa in Āryā metre), Vidārakī in Gṛhyasūtra, Vidārikā in Agnipurāṇa.

Loliem Vetal Goa Photo: Kevin Standage Reproduced by kind permission from Kevin Standage: An Indian Travel Photography Blog

J.C. Wright is Emeritus Professor in Sanskrit at the University of London, and Senior Research Fellow at SOAS. He is Honourary President of the SOAS Centre of Jaina Studies.

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CoJS Newsletter • March 2017 • Issue 12