[INDOLOGY] Colour symbolism in pre-modern Indic sources; concise overview of the senses

Dan Lusthaus prajnapti at gmail.com
Thu Apr 11 21:28:56 UTC 2019

Dear Dominik,

I suppose there are color symbol systems in various systems, and in some alchemical traditions as well, but more typically one finds mentions of color in association with properties of materials, how changes in color can be brought about and used as indications of changes in underlying materials, and so on. See, for example:


In medicine, likewise, specific symptomatic colors, for instance, of the tongue, are used as diagnostic tools, but an overall symbology of colors is not something I’ve seen (except in New Agey treatments). Islamic medicine considers green the color of healing (so the folks who stick rods and swords through parts of their bodies with little or no blood are said to afterwards wrap that part in green scarves or cloths to facilitate healing with little or no scarring), but I don’t know offhand of a non-muslim counterpart.

As for readings on the senses, sometimes it seems Indian Buddhists hardly talk about anything else. Anything on the 6 āyatanas or 18 dhātus would provide a basic account of the senses. There is a substantial section of the Saṃyutta Nikāya called the Saḷāyatana-vagga, dealing in a variety of ways with the six senses (mind is an indriya in Buddhism). That includes the following remarkable short sutta which answers the question: What is everything (sabba, Skt: sarva)?

Saṃyutta nikāya 35
Sabba Sutta SN 35.23 SN iv 15
connected discourses on the six sense bases

23. The All
At Savatthi. “Bhikkhus, I will teach you the all. Listen to that….
“And what, bhikkhus, is the all? The eye and forms, the ear and sounds, the nose and odours, the tongue and tastes, the body and tactile objects, the mind and mental phenomena. This is called the all.
“If anyone, bhikkhus, should speak thus: ‘Having rejected this all, I shall make known another all’—that would be a mere empty boast on his part. If he were questioned he would not be able to reply and, further, he would meet with vexation. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, that would not be within his domain.”
(Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation)

The Pali:

3. sabbavagga
23. Sabbasutta

“Sabbaṃ vo, bhikkhave, desessāmi. Taṃ suṇātha. Kiñca, bhikkhave, sabbaṃ? Cakkhuñceva rūpā ca, sotañca saddā ca, ghānañca gandhā ca, jivhā ca rasā ca, kāyo ca phoṭṭhabbā ca, mano ca dhammā ca—idaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, sabbaṃ. Yo, bhikkhave, evaṃ vadeyya: ‘ahametaṃ sabbaṃ paccakkhāya aññaṃ sabbaṃ paññāpessāmī’ti, tassa vācāvatthukamevassa; puṭṭho ca na sampāyeyya, uttariñca vighātaṃ āpajjeyya. Taṃ kissa hetu? Yathā taṃ, bhikkhave, avisayasmin”ti.


> On Apr 11, 2019, at 2:59 PM, Dominik Wujastyk via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info> wrote:
> Students are asking me for readings for their essays, and I'm slightly stumped for good suggestions on these two.  Can anyone point to some good studies of these topics?    
> I am particularly interested in colour readings in relation to the health sciences and alchemy, but anything will do!  I know about Martha Selby's 2005 "Narratives of Conception" article and its remarks on red/white distinctions in ayurveda.
> Regarding the senses, I haven't yet checked the Brill encyclopedia, and I will.  Probably there's something in Dasgupta, Hist. Indi. Philosophy. 
> Any suggestions will be much appreciated.
> Best,
> Dominik 
> --
> Professor Dominik Wujastyk <http://ualberta.academia.edu/DominikWujastyk>,
> Singhmar Chair in Classical Indian Society and Polity,
> Department of History and Classics <http://historyandclassics.ualberta.ca/>,
> University of Alberta, Canada.
> South Asia at the U of A: sas.ualberta.ca <http://sas.ualberta.ca/>
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