Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Daoist incantations

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Joshua Capitanio has written a fascinating, pathbreaking article on a highly esoteric, but also tremendously significant, topic:

"Sanskrit and Pseudo-Sanskrit Incantations in Daoist Ritual Texts", History of Religions, 57.4 (May, 2018), 348-405.

When Buddhism came to China in the early centuries of the Common Era, its Indic texts were brought by speakers of Indo-Iranian languages.  The massive encounter between highly inflected, alphabetic Sanskrit and isolating, morphosyllabic Sinitic naturally posed enormous challenges for translators and interpreters.  Working individually, in small groups, and even in larger teams, those who transferred Buddhist concepts and texts into Sinitic resorted to a variety of devices and techniques, including transcription, translation, paraphrasis, géyì 格義 ("categorized concepts"), and so forth.

In terms of vocabulary, upwards of thirty thousand Indic words entered the Sinitic lexicon with Buddhism beginning in the first century A.D.  Many of these are still spoken in the common language of today, including those for fāngbiàn 方便 ("convenience"), chànà 剎那 ("instant"), and chán(nà) 禪(那) ("meditation; Zen; dhyāna)".  Buddhism was also deeply involved in the development of linguistic science, especially phonology, in China.

Naturally, Buddhist religion, philosophy, language, music, etc. interacted with their indigenous Chinese counterparts, resulting in new forms of cultural production.  One of these was the rise of Daoist / Taoist religion, which is a quite different kettle of fish from Daoist / Taoist philosophy of earlier centuries.  In the process of the words and ideas of Buddhism intermingling with those of Daoism / Taoism, a curious congeries of hybrid phenomena referred to as Buddho-Daoism / Taoism arose.  This Buddho-Daoist / Taoist mélange is a subject that has deeply interested me for nearly half a century.  Already around two decades ago, I held a graduate seminar on Buddho-Daoism / Taoism at Penn, and even before that I had informally called for an international conference on this topic.  So I am exceedingly glad that Josh has carried out this fundamental research on one of the most intriguing and vital aspects of Buddho-Daoist / Taoist praxis.

Except for a small handful of advanced scholar-monks, such as Faxian (337 – c. 422), Xuanzang (fl. c. 602 – 664), and Yijing (635–713), all of whom made lengthy pilgrimages to India, very few Chinese — even practicing Buddhists — ever learned Sanskrit.  So it's not surprising that, although they were tremendously impressed by the sacrality of Buddhist hymnody and scriptural recitation, Chinese religionists couldn't make hide nor hair of the words.  As Josh (p. 349) relates, "one fifth-century Daoist likened the sounds of Sanskrit to the 'clamor of insects and the hubbub of birds' (chonghuan niaoguo 蟲讙鳥聒)."

The same goes for written Sanskrit.  Very few Chinese could read texts in Devanāgarī or the other Indic scripts in which Buddhist scriptures were written, although a few individuals, particularly in medieval and later times, learned various esoteric forms of the individual letters.  Again, as with spoken Sanskrit, Chinese Buddhists, Daoists / Taoists, and Buddho-Daoists / Taoists, if I may, recognized the power of the numinous script, and adapted it to their own purposes.  Consequently, they manipulated the Chinese script to make it seem more exotic:

"The use of obscure characters and onomatopoeias in transliterating Sanskrit incantations within Buddhist texts produces a certain effect on the reader that calls attention to the foreignness and weirdness of the Sanskrit phrases in these incantations." (pp. 385-386)

Such pseudo-Sanskritic writing becomes all the more forbidding when it blends with talismans and when Chinese characters are modified to make them look more Sanskritic and talismanic (see esp. Figs. 9 and 10).  Here we have entered the realm of super weird sinographs.

"Really weird sinographs" (5/10/18)

"Really weird sinographs, part 2" (5/11/18)

"Really weird sinographs, part 3" (3/15/18)

Josh's achievement in this paper is awe-inspiring.  The incantations and spells that he translates are particularly difficult to render because it is hard to differentiate what are purely sacred sounds from parts of the text that carry meaning, as well as distinguishing among parts that are Sanskrit transcriptions, parts that are pseudo-Sanskrit, and parts that are Chinese.

One aspect of Josh's presentation I should point out is that he would undoubtedly disagree with my emphasis on Buddho-Daoism / Taoism and the Buddhist aspects of Daoist / Taoist religion in general.  Instead, he stresses that — even though elements of their usage may stem from Buddhism, especially Tantric / esoteric Buddhism — the ritual texts he studies have their own integrity as Daoist / Taoist entities per se.

Josh's article in History of Religions is a distant descendant of a seminar paper that he wrote for one of my courses.  The present incarnation is naturally far more substantial and comprehensive.

 

Key words and main references

[Not in strict order and not exhaustive]

Christine Mollier; Robert Campany; ritual incantations (zhou 咒/呪); Tang; Song; "Brahmā-language" (fanyu 梵語); "Brahmā-script" (fanwen 梵文, fanshu 梵書, fanzi 梵字); "Brahmā-tones" (fanyin 梵音); celestial realms of Brahmā (fantian 梵天); Daoshi 道世 (d. 683), Pearl Grove of the Dharma-Garden (Fayuan zhulin 法苑珠林, T. no. 2122); Ge Hong 葛洪 (283–343), The Master Who Embraces Simplicity (Baopuzi neipian 抱朴子內篇, DZ 1185; incantations; Michel Strickmann; Numinous Treasure (Lingbao 靈寶) movement; Erik Zürcher; Stephen Bokenkamp; thunder ritual (leifa 雷法); Collected Essentials of the Dao and Its Ritual Methods (Daofa huiyuan 道法會元, Zhengtong Daozang 正統道藏 [DZ] no. 1220; Tantric Daoism; Daoist canon; Divine Empyrean (Shenxiao 神霄); Pure Tenuity (Qingwei 清微); Highest Clarity (Shangqing 上清); Celestial Heart (Tianxin 天心); Orthodox Unity (Zhengyi 正一); "thunder spirits" (leishen 雷神); Tantric Buddhism; hand gestures (shoujue 手訣); Piet van der Loon; Kristofer Schipper; Franciscus Verellen; Florian Reiter; celestial script (tianwen 天文); (fu 符); Donald Harper: Edward L. Shaughnessy; Mu-chou Poo; John Lagerwey; Marc Kalinowski; Jeffrey K. Riegel; Hsieh Shuwei; Anna Seidel; Rolf A. Stein; Gil Raz; Bronislaw Malinowski; "coefficient of weirdness"; "coefficient of intelligibility"; magical speech; Catherine Despeux; James Robson; Lotus Sūtra (Miaofa lianhua jing 妙法蓮華經, T. no. 262); dhāranị̄ (tuoluoni 陀羅尼); mantra (zhenyan 真言); vidyā (ming 明); bīja or "seed-syllables" (zhongzi 種子); Richard D. McBride; Ronald M. Davidson; Mahāyāna; Dharmarakṣa 竺法護; Lord Lao (Laojun 老君, i.e., Laozi 老子); celestial script (tianwen 天文); "mouth" radical 口 (kouzipang 口字旁); Scripture of Salvation (Duren jing 度人經, DZ no. 1); "hidden language of the great Brahmā" (dafan yinyu 大梵隱語); Stephen F. Teiser; Stephen H. West; Michael A. Fuller; Robert E. Buswell Jr.; Amoghavajra (Bukong jin'gang 不空金剛, 705–74); vowel length; consonant quality and clusters; tone; phoneme; Mārīcī; David Avalon Hall; "Concealed Book"; Devaśantika 天息災 (d. 1000); mudrā ("seal"); Robert H. Sharf; Peter Nickerson; vajra-scepter; "visualization and refinement" (cunlian 存鍊); inner alchemy (neidan 內丹); refine (lian 鍊); pneuma (qi 氣); Fabrizio Pregadio; Lowell Skar; Livia Kohn; Shin-yi Chao; Robin Wang; "covenant" (mengshi 盟誓); "Quickly, quickly, in accordance with the statutes and edicts" (jiji ru lüling 急急如律令); Buddha Vairocana (Pilushena fo 毘盧舍那佛); Kumārajīva 鳩摩 羅什 (334–413) tr. Diamond Sūtra (T. no. 235); Narendrayaśas 那連提耶舍 (517–89) tr. Great Cloud-Wheel Sūtra on Requesting Rain (Dayun lun qingyu jing 大雲輪請雨經, T. no. 991); Edward L. Davis; oṃ (an); svāhā (suopohe); hūṃ (hong); "Prajñā Mantra"; Charles D. Orzech; "Incantation for Cutting Off Epidemics" (duanwen zhou 斷瘟咒); Lothar Ledderose; "modularity"; Zheng Sixiao 鄭思肖 (1241–1318), "Inner Method of Oblatory Refinement of the Great Bourne" (Taiji jilian neifa 太極祭鍊內法, DZ no. 548); Koichi Shinohara; Judith M. Boltz; hand-sign (jue 訣); "Precious Register" (baolu 寶籙); icon; graph; yin; yang; "ghost" 鬼 radical; Paul Copp; David J. Mozina; Marshal Ma; Marshal Wu; Donald S. Lopez Jr.; Terry F. Kleeman; Walter Liebenthal; Arthur Link; Arthur F. Wright; Mitamura Keiko; Harold D. Roth

 

Readings

"Pig Sanskrit" (8/10/16)

"Are Sanskrit and Chinese 'congenial languages'?" (9/9/13)

"Spoken Sanskrit" (1/9/16)

"Sanskrit resurgent" (8/13/14)

"A Sanskrit tattoo in Hong Kong" (10/4/16)

"Bahasa and the concept of 'National Language'" (3/14/13)

"WU2WEI2: Do Nothing" (3/10/09)

"Buddhism and languages" (2/28/17)

"Texts and Transformations" (4/3/18)

"Which is harder: Western classical languages or Chinese?" (3/6/16)



30 Comments

  1. Philip Taylor said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 7:53 am

    May I ask, without wishing to appear disrespectful, why you chose to use the phrase "in the early centuries of the Common Era" rather than "in the early centuries A.D." ? I ask because the context is clearly a religious one (it discusses Daoism and Buddhism), so for me the more natural expression in this context would be A.D. rather than C.E. I can understand why C.E. is attractive in purely secular contexts, but this is not one. I might (perhaps should) add that I am not a practising Christian, have no reason to believe that Christianity is any more valid than any other religion, but I can (and do) use A.D. (and B.C.) as a matter of course.

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    @Philip Taylor: I'm not speaking for Prof. Mair, of course, but why would you believe the criterion for using AD/CE is religious vs. non-religious contexts?

    To me, it's clear that CE is always applicable, so one could simply always use CE. Or one could use AD when speaking to an audience that believes in the divinity of Jesus, and CE otherwise.

  3. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 9:30 am

    Is chànà cognate with Sanskrit kṣaṇa, perhaps?

    Also a nit: I don't believe Devanagari was in use anywhere near the time-frames we're talking about. My understanding is the script is only about 500 years old.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 9:57 am

    My purview on Chinese not learning Sanskrit (the language and the scripts in which it was written) extended up to modern times.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devanagari

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 9:58 am

    "Is chànà cognate with Sanskrit kṣaṇa, perhaps?"

    Yes, indeed.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 10:00 am

    From Daniel Boucher:

    I have argued that fanwen 梵文 or fanshu 梵書stand for brāhmī script, and huben 胡本 for kharoṣṭhī script texts, at least in some of the early colophons. The Chinese could not distinguish the issue of script and language, and so were not aware that these two scripts could in fact write the same language.

  7. Jayarava said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 12:14 pm

    Looks very interesting, thanks! I look forward to reading this.

    Re Daniel Bouncher's comment, is it likely that Sanskrit texts arrived in china written in Kharoṣṭhī? As far as I recall the extant texts in Kharoṣṭhī are in Gāndhārī or Central Asian languages. Might it not have seemed to them that the scripts were used for different languages?

    Re "Except for a small handful of advanced scholar-monks… very few Chinese ever learned Sanskrit.

    This is an interesting fact given they they maintained a technical vocab in Sanskrit. I note that much the same is true of Western Buddhists. They also seldom distinguish between Sanskrit and Devanāgarī. Pāli is more widely read, if not spoken, but it is a much easier language to learn and almost universally written in Roman script.

  8. John Swindle said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 3:14 pm

    @Jayarava: When you say Pali is "almost universally written in Roman script", you mean when it's used by Westerners who normally use that script? I ask because in books in a university library I've seen Pali written in Roman, Devanagari, and Cyrillic scripts; I see it on the Web in Sinhala and, experimentally, Brahmi scripts; and Wikipedia mentions liturgical Pali as a use for Burmese, Khmer, and (modified) Thai scripts.

  9. AntC said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

    Without wishing to take anythig away from the tremendous scholarship of Joshua and Prof Mair,

    Like @Philip Taylor, I found in the early centuries of the Common Era confusing in that context.

    There's no reason social/religious movements in India/China should be synchronised with Western Europe. At first reading, I thought Prof Mair perhaps meant some common era of the unification of China (starting 221 B.C., so "early centuries" meaning Emperor Ming (28 – 75 A.D.) would be not entirely inaccurate, and Prof Mair also mentions beginning in the first century A.D.).

    Or perhaps some common era in the history of Buddhism — although dating the life of the Buddha is problematic (6th – 4th C B.C.)

    Seeing as we're talking about Chinese culture, Buddhism, Daoism/Taoism, let's start at some average of the lives of Confucius, Buddha, Laozi — who were roughly contemporaries (maybe). That has the strongest claim to start a "common era" for these purposes.

    Outside of academe, we're still using A.D./B.C. And academe is too, just with different naming.

    It seems some sort of Politically Correct conceit to orient dates around 0 A.D. yet avoid linking its naming with the supposed (but probably inaccurate) date of birth of the founder of another religion. Nothing of significance to any "common" culture happened in 0 A.D. Rome was at the height of its powers, but was already well established in that position and would remain so for centuries.

    OTOH the other Politically Correct practice of dating Before Present seems confusing for a different reason: the present is a constantly-moving point. It's accurate enough for Geological time.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

    A couple of additional references:

    Dominic Steavu is doing very interesting studies on the intersections of "Daoism" with Buddhism.

    Fabio Rambelli has a book, A Buddhist Theory of Semiotics (Bloomsbury, 2013), which deals with conceptual and ritual aspects of mantra and the Tantric perfect language in an East Asian context (mostly Japan).

  11. Terry Hunt said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

    FWIW, some of the school history books with which I was issued around age 12 in 1968 at a Methodist Residential School (in the UK) used BCE/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era), so this convention cannot be said to be either new*, over-academic, or anti-Christian. (Though no-one above has suggested the latter, I have seen such sentiment elsewhere.)
    (* It was actually first mentioned (in its Latin form) by my lifelong hero, Johannes Kepler, in 1615.)

    It has always seemed to me to be a tacit recognition that World, and indeed religious, history does not revolve around Christianity, while at the same time recognising that this particular zero point (actually first suggested in 525 AD/CE) is more widely recognised than any other. In the case of a discussion of religious and historical matters that have no relation whatever to Christianity or Western civilization (and which predate the invention of BC/AD anyway), it seems to me (YMMV) to be particularly appropriate. I find it hard to believe that any educated person is either unfamiliar with the usage, or has any real trouble with it, any more that when seeing, say, 16:00 used to indicate 4:00pm.

  12. Terry Hunt said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 10:33 pm

    FWIW, some of the school history books with which I was issued around age 12 in 1968 at a Methodist Residential School (in the UK) used BCE/CE (Before Common Era/Common Era), so this convention cannot be said to be either new*, over-academic, or anti-Christian. (Though no-one above has suggested the latter, I have seen such sentiment elsewhere.)
    (* It was actually first mentioned (in its Latin form) by my lifelong hero, Johannes Kepler, in 1615.)

    It has always seemed to me to be a tacit recognition that World, and indeed religious, history does not revolve around Christianity, while at the same time recognising that this particular zero point (actually first suggested in 525 AD/CE) is more widely recognised than any other. In the case of a discussion of religious and historical matters that have no relation whatever to Christianity or Western civilization (and which predate the invention of BC/AD anyway), it seems to me (YMMV) to be particularly appropriate. I find it hard to believe that any educated person is either unfamiliar with the usage, or has any real trouble with it, any more that when seeing, say, 16:00 used to indicate 4:00pm.

  13. Terry Hunt said,

    May 24, 2018 @ 10:34 pm

    Re my previous, the strikethrough was a botched attempt at smaller text – apologies!

  14. Michael Watts said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 1:12 am

    The massive encounter between highly inflected, alphabetic Sanskrit and isolating, morphosyllabic Sinitic naturally posed enormous challenges for translators and interpreters.

    Does the unit structure of the writing system have any impact here? How would translation / interpretation have been easier if e.g. Sanskrit had been a highly inflected language written in a syllabary?

  15. Ursa Major said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 6:02 am

    "…in the early centuries of the Common Era."

    This usage which flouts all established conventions is outrageous and a potential source of great confusion. In the very next paragraph Prof. Mair writes "in the first century A.D." and then later gives the dates of some scholars with no indication of the era at all. Consistency of terminology is essential!

  16. Victor Mair said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 7:54 am

    "This usage which flouts all established conventions is outrageous and a potential source of great confusion."

    That's a way-over-the-top condemnation of a usage that is widespread in scholarly literature.

    Soon after I began writing this post, I was faced with the reality that Josh Capitanio, the author of the article I was introducing, uses CE for his dates. That's customary, almost obligatory, in academic writing about religion, indeed for all humanities fields in contemporary academia. I, on the other hand, still cling to BC and AD. I immediately realized the contradiction between Josh's usage and my own, but decided to let it stand, both out of respect for the integrity of Josh's article, and with the hope that a by-product of the post might be a reasoned discussion of the two different systems.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_Era

    Victor H. Mair, "The Need for a New Era", Sino-Platonic Papers, 111 (November, 2000), 1-10.

    http://www.sino-platonic.org/complete/spp111_new_era.pdf

  17. david said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 7:56 am

    "outrageous"

    a compliment

    https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=outrageous

  18. Ursa Major said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 8:11 am

    Ok, I guess that answers my question of whether my joke was obvious enough. I was trying to riff on a stereotypical comment, with the punchline that inconsistent use of technical terms within a single text is annoying and can cause problems in understanding. For the record, I have no opinion (although I like Terry Hunt's reasons for using BCE/CE) and I didn't even notice first time through, and only looked back after seeing multiple posts about it.

  19. liuyao said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    Interesting read (or skim) of VHM's paper "The Need for a New Era". Some thoughts (apologies if they are already mentioned, and it's getting way off from the OP):

    1) Speaking of "cleansing the calender", the 60-year cycle of the Chinese does not seem crazy after all. It served well for the human lifespan.

    2) In the addendum VHM also proposed the reset of the first month; the Chinese did that back in the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (cf. 建正).

    3) Astronomers already mark January 1, 2000 as the new era (or epoch), for all their measurements. If you see a map of the sky, the boundary lines between constellations are all horizontal and vertical (resembling some State boundaries in the US), but if you look more closely they are tilted slightly. That's because the lines were drawn for the year 1875 and as the earth processes (wobbles very slowly) the map for J2000 (J for Julian) has tilted away. I don't know when they'll start using the next epoch.

    4) To do away with religious association, I thought it would be great to commemorate a scientist from the modern era. Newton would be a natural choice. Then I thought it may be better to mark 1945 (so that 1946 would be year 1), the end of the Second World War. (To have a year 0 is better.) Incidentally, there is a book called "Year Zero: A History of 1945" by Ian Buruma.

    5) Someone should make a browser extension that converts all years into an era of your choice. See how you like it.

  20. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 9:35 am

    There is actually a historic peeve according to which 'century AD' is wrong, because 'AD' means 'in the year of the Lord', and 'first century in the year of the Lord' doesn't make sense. Before 'Common Era' came into widespread use, the 'correct' form would, I think, have been 'century of the Christian era'.

  21. Gabriel Faure said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 12:44 pm

    Might the author have permission to distribute the paper sans paywall?

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

    The issue perhaps only arose in this post because of context – if one references the Mongol invasion of China as having been in the 13th century, one will typically not bother to specify that it's NOT the 13th century BC(E), but one cannot be confident that a non-specialist will know which side of A.D. 1 the arrival of Buddhism in China occurred on.

    One of the odd historical quirks of Quakers (and perhaps a few other religious minorities) in Anglophone cultures was their tendency to refer to the days of the week and the months of the year by numbers rather than their traditional English names, because of the etymological presence of e.g. the Saxon pagan god Woden in Wednesday or the Roman pagan god Mars in March. The vast majority of their fellow Anglophones were not themselves worshipers of Woden or Mars but nonetheless thought this an unnecessary scruple, because they did not feel like using the customary nomenclature constituted or implied an endorsement of the religion buried in the etymology. I'm not sure why one should find the etymologically Christian aspect of A.D. nomenclature more controversial than the etymologically pagan aspects of day/month nomenclature.

  23. Peter Erwin said,

    May 25, 2018 @ 11:21 pm

    @AntC:

    Although I agree with you about the awkwardness of BCE/CE — which I suspect will at some point in the future come under criticism for its implicit normalization of Christianity as the "common" culture referent for human history — "Before Present" is shorthand for "Before 1950", the reference point for carbon-14 dating; and so is not a politically correct, search-and-replace renaming of an existing system the way BCE/CE is.

    @ liuyao:
    Astronomers already mark January 1, 2000 as the new era (or epoch), for all their measurements.

    It turns out that one of the reasons for choosing 1950 as the reference point for carbon dating (something decided on in the 1950s) was the fact that it was the standard astronomical epoch at the time. (The International Astronomical Union adopted 2000 as the standard for future work in 1976.)

    Then I thought it may be better to mark 1945 (so that 1946 would be year 1), the end of the Second World War. (To have a year 0 is better.) Incidentally, there is a book called "Year Zero: A History of 1945" by Ian Buruma.

    There used to be a minor tradition in some science fiction stories where the future dating system was the "Atomic Era" (or some similar name), starting in 1945 — the idea being that the practical deployment of atomic weapons and energy marked a key change in human history.

    In Vernor Vinge's novel A Deepness in the Sky, far-future "software archeologists" digging into the oldest parts of their starships' operating system noted a time system apparently based on the first landing on the Moon — except that the zero point was, somewhat mysteriously, several million seconds later than the actual landing. (This was an obscure clue suggesting that the whole thing had its origin in the Unix operating system, where the zero point is January 1, 1970.)

  24. David Marjanović said,

    May 26, 2018 @ 8:24 am

    OTOH the other Politically Correct practice of dating Before Present seems confusing for a different reason: the present is a constantly-moving point. It's accurate enough for Geological time.

    No, the Present is 1 January 1950, and this is the year 68 After Present. A postmodern age indeed.

  25. Rodger C said,

    May 26, 2018 @ 11:39 am

    if one references the Mongol invasion of China as having been in the 13th century, one will typically not bother to specify that it's NOT the 13th century BC(E)

    Presupposing a modicum of education. I saw something online just the other day that put the Vikings between 800 and 1100 BC. I think that for many people "BC" must mean "Before Columbus" or just "you know, a long time ago."

  26. David Marjanović said,

    May 26, 2018 @ 2:23 pm

    Or they just couldn't remember what BC and AD stand for, and confused them.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 26, 2018 @ 4:28 pm

    Using a more recent year to restart the clock is affirmatively unhelpful, because confusion inevitably ensues in keeping the BC-or-equivalent dates straight, doing calculations that involve counting backwards (exacerbated by the lack of a Year Zero) etc. What is optimal (leaving aside the massive path-dependency issues that make this subject even less relevant to the real world than nerdy claims about what sort of keyboard layout would be better than qwerty) is a starting date far enough back that all of the earliest "recorded history" you will have common occasion to write about (whether it happend in China or Mesopotamia or Egypt etc) will be in the positive range. The Masonic reckoning in which this is year 6018 A.L. (= Anno Lucis) would probably work fine for that, and if you feel the need for even more headroom there's the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocene_calendar.

    On the other hand, if you're primarily concerned with celebrating modernity and rationalism and overthrowing the historical burden of Christianity, the proper starting date for your calendar has already been identified, namely the First of Vendemaire in Year I (alias Sept. 22, 1792 in Gregorian reckoning), and you can't really improve on that.

  28. Rodger C said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 11:41 am

    Or they just couldn't remember what BC and AD stand for, and confused them.

    I think you're probably right, considering that AD is often left unexpressed and BC almost never is, so that people are used to seeing it on long-ago dates.

  29. mg said,

    May 27, 2018 @ 10:24 pm

    @AntC and @Philip Taylor: It would be one thing if instead of B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini/year of our Lord) we had something like B.J. (before Jesus) and A.J. (after Jesus). But for those of us who do not believe that Jesus was "the Christ" or "our Lord", using those terms can be very uncomfortable when there is another alternative. In C.E. the "Common Era" simply means the time frame that's used in common dating parlance.

    I particularly don't understand why anyone would think that B.C./A.D. should be used in a religious context when the religion isn't Christianity! What does Jesus have to do with the dating of time for Taoists or Buddhists? In writing about Judaism, it would be beyond bizarre to use those in preference to C.E. and B.C.E.

    Demeaning something as "politically correct" is often a way of saying "I don't want to be bothered saying things in a way that takes into account that not everyone's like me. I hope that isn't how you mean it, but that is how it comes across.

  30. Jason M said,

    May 28, 2018 @ 11:02 am

    Why is B.C. in English and A.D. in Latin BTW? Googling reveals a partially satisfying answer: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/244910/why-is-b-c-before-christ-in-english-but-a-d-anno-domini-in-latin

    Summarizing, most western scholars since the Middle Ages were Catholic Church affiliated, and cared only about the ongoing "era of our Lord", thus the churchly A.D. has been well established for centuries. On the other hand, a mish-mash of ways of stating dates before year 1 of the common era had been used up until the mid-late 18th Century (or about two centuries before the carbon dating Present to use an areligious dating metric) including the natural Latin mirror version of A.D.: "Ante Christ" (A.C.). But A.C. may be easily confused with A.D. (plus, though this was not noted in the study I linked to, doesn't ante Christ remind one a bit unfortunately of antichrist?) so English writers began to coalesce around B.C. with A.D. already established and the two abbreviations easily distinguishable.

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