Therapeutic etymology

*Disclaimer* I am not a linguist by any means. My lack of understanding of Pali, Greek, and possibly English validates any grain of salt thrown at this post. Put your Skeptics hat on, my friends.

Around 250 BCE, the Third Buddhist Council convened under the patronage of Asoka, emperor of the pan-Indian Mauryan empire. The council’s purpose was to expunge the heretical and false, including both the views of dhamma and monastics. The council compiled the teachings and rules that would be considered the “teachings of the Elders”, Theravada.¹

After the council had concluded, Asoka sent out missionaries on the behalf of the Theravadins to all parts of the known world, including the Hellenic world.

These missionairies would have been called the Sons of the Elders, Theraputta. Although there is little record, Asoka claims to have reached Egypt and Greece with the dhamma.

Some time later, an account is given by Philo of a monastic order existing in Egypt. His account, recorded around 10 CE, was of the Therapeutae, who were to also influence the formation of the Christian monastic order. While it is conjectured of their Jewish origins, some have also pointed to their Buddhist origins. The origin of the name of the monastic order is uncertain, whether it means “physician” in their case of the soul, or “servants” of God. However, one linguist points to the Therapeutae and notes that it is simply a hellenization of the Theraputta.²

And of course, the English word “Therapeutic” comes from this same Greek root. I just find it novel that the roots are so closely tied. Of course I am missing something and this could just be one strange, self-serving theory or a coincidence. Any linguists out there?

1. History of Buddhism in India.
2. Thundy, Zacharis P. “Religions in Dialogue: East and West meet.” and “Buddha and Christ : nativity stories and Indian traditions.”

15 Replies to “Therapeutic etymology”

  1. I, also, am not a linguist. But I do know that Pali, as one of the “Prakrit” languages, is part of the larger family of Indo-European languages which all share roots and gave rise to everything from Sanskrit to Latin to French. So it’s no coincidence that there’s a relationship between “therapeutic” and “theraputta.”

    The question of Buddhists in Egypt or not is another matter. And damned interesting. Thanks for the good post.

  2. You knew that I’m a linguist! Therapeutae comes from therapeutein (to cure).

    This is an interesting idea, definitely a possible borrowing, and perhaps local Greek-speakers later assumed that the word theraputta was related to the word therapeutein, and then changed it accordingly. I don’t know if the word theraputta was widely used, but who knows.

    I remember William Bodiford once quoted research that suggested that two Christian saints might actually be based on the historical Buddha!

  3. I think the Christian saints you are referring to are Barlaam and Josaphat. I’m not completely familiar with the work, but here’s a quickie link to something about it.

    I think what some of this points to is a rich and jumbled intermingling of cultures: Hellenic and Pan-Indian, philosophic traditions, Christ’ sermons and parables and Buddha’s dhamma. These past interactions halted and each tradition headed in opposite directions, developing mostly independently of each other. However, we live in a time of mingling once again, and if the ancients could respect and adopt, then so can we =)

  4. I first heard of Barlaam and Josephat a year or so ago ( from
    William Dalrymple, the writer) … I was very surprised and interested that there was evidence that stories of Buddhist origin were known in the middle ages in Europe.
    I have since become aware that there is some evidence that the greeks even beseiged Pataliputra, the capital of Maghada/Mauryan empire – at some time around the 2nd century BCE. The Buddhist Pali Text “Questions of King Malinda” records discussions with the graeco-bactrian king

    You are absolutely right that Ashoka sent buddhist missionaries in all directions, and claims that they were recieved as far away as greece and egypt.
    It is notable that no clear record remains in the west. I think it is looking likely that the faint traces we are searching for is in fact the huge elephant right under our noses. The religion of the real/historical Jesus is the primary remnant if the communication between the buddhist and graeco-roman worlds , which we cannot deny took place.

  5. The more I look the more I like this blog 🙂

    This is a nice theory. The origins of ‘therapeutic’ (from the Greek therapeutein) are obscure according to etymological dictionaries – there are a number of Greek cognates which all share the sense of ‘to attend, minister, treat’; but no-one claims to understand the underlying meaning.

    @djbuddha could be right to suggest that it is simply a coincidence based on common roots, but these are usually easy to spot and noted in the dictionaries. So ‘dharma’ is cognate with ‘firm’ for instance because of common Indo-European roots.

    Theraputta is a word in Pāli, though it is only found in the Mahāvaṃsa and another post-canonical works written in Sri Lanka and Burma. It is not found in the suttas, vinaya, or abhidhamma. This is a problem because it means that the usage almost certainly post-dates Asoka.

    The regular word for messenger is dūta, and a missionary is a dhammadūta. A kings messenger or ambassador is a rājādūta.

    Also contra what other contributors have suggested it is now thought unlikely that Asoka sent monks as ambassadors to spread the Buddhadharma, but sent non-monastics to spread the word about the Asokadhamma (which was influenced by the Buddha, but not identical). I’ve blogged about this issue:

    These factors make it seem unlikely to me that therapeutic is referring to Theravādin monks – and who else would refer to themselves a “son of the thera”? What’s more if the west was in touch with monks they were most likely from Gandhāra which is roughly where the present day Taliban control Afghanistan and Pakistan. They were not likely to be Theravādin. A number of wonderful caches of old birch bark texts have been found in that region and mostly point to a Dharmagupta origin. It’s unlikely that the Theravādins were ever prominent in India. Indeed by this time Hindu monasticism was also being organised along the lines of Buddhism, who in turn had organised their sangha on a Jain model. Note that the Jains were present throughout the period we’re talking about – up to the present.

    @Halfconscious I would dearly love to see the source for the greeks beseiging Palitapura at that time. We know that a Greek traveller called Megasthenes visited the great city (possibly when Asoka’s illustrious Grandfather Chandragupta Maurya was ruler) and was impressed, but I’ve not seen an account of a seige in any published source – it would rather change the course of Indian ancient history to say that the Greeks (well into their decline) fought their way 2000 miles across the crowded Ganges plain to what is now Patna (at it’s peak) with enough strength to lay seige to one of the largest cities in the world!

    @Oz re Barlaam and Josephat. I can’t see a connection with the original post as far as I know there is no connection with the time period or with monasticism. However I can say that I read the English translation about 10 years ago. If I hadn’t known that it was about the Buddha (Barlaam) and Bodhisattva (josephat) I would not have guessed – it is a fairy tale weighed down by tons of references to the bible. There were always trade links through the Khyber Pass. B&J came west in a series of stages, being translated a number of times – indicating a very indirect influence if any, and rather later than the period we’re talking about.

    This Thundy chap is a bit hard to pin down – no CV anywhere. Lots of book publications but nothing from an academic press and no journal articles. Nothing on Wikipedia even. His work is highly speculative. He does have a website called “Jesus is Buddha”. Hmmm.

    Anyway an interesting post that got me thinking and brought some interesting ideas.


  6. Prof. Thundy is easy to contact through his website. In his book Buddha and Christ, Nativity stories from the India tradition, he shows Therapeutae to be from Theravada(n) as the Coptic had no V it became B. Butwho could miss the pun on budha in peutae, the root is actualy known to philologists it is the POT in despot, Sanskrit PATI

  7. Well I’ve already laid out the arguments (shown if you like) for any meeting between Coptics and Theravadin monks being extremely unlikely. There were other far more likely possibilities for meetings. We can only speculate, but this theory is at odds with the general drift of Buddhist history in India – so not only does Thundy have to explain an unlikely philological solution, he has to re-write the history books.

    But peutae and Buddha – *if pronounced correctly* are not really very close in sound – in Buddha for example English speakers seldom pronounce both of the d sounds or the aspiration on the second. They are not at all close in meaning. In the USA ‘Buddha’ is pronounced like the peu in therapeutic, but this is a quirk and nothing like the correct vowel sound. So where is the pun except in (American) English?

    Despot and Sanskrit pati are not related to peutae in *meaning* either. Just because the English word ‘putty’ sounds like Sans. pati does not mean they are related. In fact peutae ‘attendant’ and pati ‘lord, husband’ are more like opposites.

    Theravāda means ‘doctrine of the elders’; a Theravādin is one whose doctrine is from the elders – and that is not at all related to ‘therapy’ either. The Theravādins weren’t renowned for being either as far as I know (in fact monks eschewed most medicines, did not minister; and, far from attending on anyone, the expected to be attended to).

    So you’re left trying to explain why the Greeks adopted a word but not its meaning, or perhaps adopted a foreign word, the meaning of which they did not know (or perhaps care about), for something familiar like an attendant or healer. It just doesn’t make sense from the Buddhist side of the equation.

    This sound/look alike game is fun to play, but one shouldn’t take it too seriously. What we have here is English speakers noticing the similarity in the Romanisation of Anglicised and then Americanised versions of words.

  8. Pudhu meaning new puddhi wisdom podhi/puhattu / teach and it goes in my mother tongue Thamirl… to me Pali is not just a vernacular but a paLLi language.. (paLLi meaning School of Bhuddhist monks..)

    forgive me my limited knowledge and understandings..
    (not a false-humility.. but that is the fact.)

    ~Bhu’pathi Monikyum (Seattle)

  9. Hi Jayarava,

    you wrote “Well I’ve already laid out the arguments (shown if you like) for any meeting between Coptics and Theravadin monks being extremely unlikely”

    Have you laid out “all” the arguments? There is historical proof that Buddhism was known in ALexandria. From Alexandria we have the earliest b-days of Jesus, Dec.25, April,May, first said of Buddha (Buddhacarita&Lalitavistara Budd. born when the sun retired). In the earliest Jatakas and in the Pali texts (and Sanskrit) Buddha and his doctor, the king Bimbasara, Angulamala, etc, and the Bodhisat in his former births, are all schooled at Taxil (Afghanistan) the city Kandahar is said to be named from Alexander but the name is from the Buddhist Gandharas, the folk etymology of ‘Gandharas’ said to be from a well known root for good smell but it is from Gan(calculation-dhara (holder, ex dharani&Darius) Sanskrit ganitra (cog. with gematria andused by the Mulasarvastivadins) said to mean “calcula-tor/tra=device). In Alexandria the wise men/ later known as kings, give us Buddhist names for the kings/wise men from the east. The early church fathers tell us of a Scythianus who came from India with books, the say he debated with the apostles and had a disciple named “Buddas”, the say he had a “gospel” before any other gospel. etc… many other proofs, such as several gospel authors quote from the Greek bible made by Ptolemy Philadelphus, the same person Asoka says willingly recieved Buddhism, etc..

    1. Hi Dan

      In brief the argument, if you read it, is not about Buddhism per se, but about Theravāda Buddhism – the Buddhism we mostly associate with Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. The author was trying to argue that therapeuti was a reference to Theravādins. It wasn’t.

      None of what you have written is relevant to the question being discussed. Some of it is completely off the wall.

  10. Early Christianity is from Antioch and Alexandria, Alexander the Great tried to fuse Zeus with Boethius (Greek allegory for Buddha) when he first went to Antioch, before that he planed his invasion of India from Palestine. Around the time of Jesus the Indian king Pamdion sent an embassy to meet diplomats from Athens in Antioch were a Buddhist burned himself alive. Mentioned by Plutarch and many others this can be traced well before any mention of Jesus. Philo himself compares the Therapeutae (&Essenes) to the Bramins. From what he tells us we now know they came under the influence of Buddhism–they did worship the sun before they merged with a compromised Buddhism, insted of eating only when the sun was up, they did not want to offend the sun/Buddha/god so they only ate when it was dark. Philo says they sling there left arm in their robe, same of Buddhists, required meal of hemp seeds came from the therapeut& was the required meal for medieval Christian monks (Budd ate hemp seeds for six years, highest food in bio-available protein) The medicine of Alexandria was influenced by Buddhism, they had already recieved pepper from India for thousands of years and learned how to use it for medicine after Alexander’s contact with India, The Buddhist doctors were the first to to an autopsy, the word “autopsy” means “see for yourself” a famous Buddhist phrase many times applied to meditating on a corpse and its parts. Much more in my book, Father and Son, East is West ,

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