What is a sutra?

Sutra on dried banana leaves

Imagine you are the author of a Sutra. Why would cutting down one word give you immense pleasure? To understand this, and to understand what is a sutra continue reading.

The word sutra is derived from the verbal root siv, meaning to sew. The medical word suture also comes from the same root. The word sutra is meant to potray the idea of a “thread holding together” a collection of paragraphs to form a manual conveying a single idea.

Sutras are also related to brevity and conciseness. The idea is to pack as much meaning in as few words as possible. Why is this so? To understand this one has to go back thousands of years when the sutras were composed. Paper was not invented then and text was written on dried leaves. This was not only time consuming and expensive, but also viewed as unreliable. Text written on dried leaves was prone to destruction or decay. War, famine, floods, mass migrations, plague, and other disruptions made it extremely difficult to carry around elaborate texts written in long form on dried leaves, and preserve these across generations.

A better way had to be found to convey and preserve ideas over a period of thousands of years. A system was invented whereby ideas were written down in extremely short form and these were then memorized and passed on from generation to generation. Brevity was hence of the essence. Every word was a burden that had to be carried on by subsequent generations. Consequently the authors of a sutra spent enormous energy in condensing their idea in as few words as possible. It is said that if the author of a sutra could cut out one word from his sutra then he got as much pleasure as he would get on the birth of his first son!

Besides being short, the sutra had to be complete, unambiguous, and logically consistent. It had to describe the subject completely in as few words as possible while being structured in a logical and consistent ways so that there was no need to refer to any other text to understand the subject.

The way sutras were learnt was that they were first memorized. After the complete text was memorized only then the teacher would explain the meaning of each stanza one at a time. The process of memorization was that the teacher would chant one whole stanza and the students would then repeat after him multiple times. Once the teacher was satisfied that the stanza was committed to memory he would move on to the next stanza. The pronunciation and meter of the recitation was important. Mispronunciation could render the meaning of the words to be different from what the author intended. That is why a lot of care was taken to make sure that the rendition was accurate and faithful to the original. The author of the sutra had to take care that the sutra was composed in such a way that it made it possible to chant and memorize it.

Sanskrit language was also part of the system. (Though this was not the only language in which sutras were written.) The language was created to be mathematical and precise. The idea was that the meaning of the words would in themselves convey the idea rather than rely on context that can change with time. It can be debated on how successful this was as commentators on the various sutras debate on what the original authors meant. But the fact that we can still talk about and largely understand what was composed thousands of years ago speaks to the success of the system.

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One Response to What is a sutra?

  1. Jayant says:

    Interesting, Thank you, can you also tell us , how many total number of sutras are found and wht they mean

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