I have recently rekindled my interest in Buddhism and have subsequently been doing a lot of reading on the subject. More specifically, I am reading some of the Mahayana sutras, starting with the Diamond Sutra, and I had a realization that brought me both pleasure and some amount of frustration: the Sanskrit word maha, the first element in Mahayana, means “great” and I had never realized this before.
Given that Mahayana is one of the two main branches of Buddhism, I had encountered the word numerous times and had a clear understanding of its meaning: “Greater Vehicle”. However, I never stopped to break it down and assign English meanings to the parts of the Sanskrit word. I treated the word as a symbol where the combination of those particular letters, in that particular order, simply equaled the meaning “Greater Vehicle” in some sort of creatio ex nihilo process that did not bear examination.
But when I did break the word down into maha + yana, I saw connections immediately. The first word that came to mind was maharaja, which means “great king”. I then began, as I tend to do when thinking about a word, to look for substitution patterns that might help me to transpose the word into other languages within the same language family.
I knew from prior research that consonants that sound “softer” in Sanskrit tend to sound “harder” in European languages so I focused on the “h” in the middle of maha and turned it into two phonetically related “hard” sounds of “k” and “g” and came up with some cognates immediately.
I first tried the m-k root and (focusing on sound) came up with the German words Macht and machen, which mean “power” and “to make or do” respectively. This makes sense in that maha doesn’t seem to mean “great” in the sense of “large”, but rather in terms of power. In other words, something is great because it can do things.
Using the m-g root, the the first word that came to mind was megin, the Old Norse word for “power” or “strength”. My mind then jumped to the Greek word mega, which means “great”. In the modern world, this is a word that all English speakers understand intuitively, from Megabucks to Megalopolis to Megabus. For those with a more esoteric bent, one need only think of Aleister Crowley describing himself as “To Mega Therion,” or “The Great Beast.”
At this point, other associations started popping up, such as the Latin word magnus, which also means “great.” From this we get the reasonably common Scandinavian boy’s name Magnus, which was an element in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor Karl Magnus, better known by the French version of his name, Charlemagne. Again, he was given this name because of his deeds in uniting large parts of western Europe under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, not for his physical size.
Finally, given my interest in ancient, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, I hit on the legendary Greco-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest” Hermes. Here again, greatness is a byproduct of power, of the ability to do things. In the case of Hermes, there is no general agreement among scholars as to why he was called “thrice greatest”, but competing theories include his mastery of the three areas of magical wisdom in the ancient world, alchemy, astrology and theurgy, and the three most exalted roles in society, those of philosopher, priest and king.
In most ways, this is a tidy and satisfying conclusion to my investigation of maha, and I am once again left with an admiration for the beauty and clarity of Sanskrit. Every time I encounter transliterated Sanskrit I am pleasantly surprised at how much intuitive sense it makes in relation to other Indo-European languages. However, I am also left with a lingering sense of frustration that it is so difficult to learn because it uses Devangari script. Much like Greek, Persian and Russian, the unfamiliar script is a formidable barrier and Sanskrit may remain a bit of a mystery to me, just on the other side of the veil.