vesyas: whore or courtezans?

Jonathan Silk silk at HUMNET.UCLA.EDU
Fri Nov 21 19:01:53 UTC 2003

Perhaps Allen is thinking of "Legal Position of Prostitutes according
to Kautilya's Arthasastra," reprinted in Juridical Studies in Ancient
Indian Law, part 1: 199-270.

The problem as I understand it is not that there were never
distinctions in usage, but that they cannot now necessarily be
satisfactorily extracted from texts the contexts of which we have
almost entirely lost. Moreover, like many such things, the nuance of
the words in question appears to have varied significantly between
authors/time/places. This is why, I think, Sternbach's encyclopedic
compilation leads one into some confusion. For example, there is good
evidence that the ga.nikaa were true courtesans, high class, and not
street-walkers--S says this ("in all the sources the word ga.nikaa
always denoted the highest degree of prostitutes--a courtesan"), but
for instance the word ruupaajiivaa (which should mean something like
a woman who makes a living off her looks) appears to have a very
broad meaning, but distinct at least in some sources from ga.nikaa. A
problem comes when one finds a number of terms which some sources
distinguish used is what can only be apposition.

So, I think the question of whore/courtesan is actually part of a
much bigger question: how much of our translation really understands
the nuance of the original we claim to render. (I recently came up
against this with a discussion of excretion--I had no idea what sort
of words to use for urination etc., since I have no idea what the
nuance of the original implied.)

(I hope at least the first line of this email is helpful to Allen!)

Jonathan Silk
Department of East Asian Languages & Cultures
Center for Buddhist Studies
290 Royce Hall
Box 951540
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1540
phone: (310)206-8235
fax:  (310)825-8808
silk at

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