Bihar results and the mystery around Hocus Pocus

Subhash Kak
Subhash KakNov 10, 2015 | 09:32

Bihar results and the mystery around Hocus Pocus

In mature democracies, politicians use self-deprecating humour to put people at ease. There are even ceremonies where the guest of honour is roasted (as against toasted) for the amusement of the public. The idea is that one is not to be deadly serious all the time. Such sanctioned use of satire and parody is, of course, not allowed in totalitarian societies. In the United States, the White House Correspondents' Association and Radio and Television Correspondents' Association have annual dinners that feature a comedy roasting of the president or other powerful politicians.


The tension in the Indian media for the last several weeks has been extremely high. Now that the Bihar election results are out, perhaps looking at less serious matters will lighten up things. So here is a mystery.

Emperor Ashoka (250 BC) concludes his first rock edict by:


dhammenapalana, dhammenavidhane,

dhammenasukhiyana, dhamenagotiti

The word dhamma (or dharma) is usually translated as law although it could also mean tradition or truth. If we choose the common meaning, Ashoka's declaration becomes:

For this is my rule:

government by the law, of the law;

prosperity by the law, protection by the law.

Let's advance 2,100 years and consider Abraham Lincoln. He concludes the Gettysburg Address with a flourish similar to Ashoka's: "Government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Lincoln was echoing Daniel Webster's 33-year-old speech in the senate where he spoke of the "People's government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people." But it is likely that both Webster and Lincoln had borrowed this phrase from John Wycliffe (14th century), the first translator of Latin Bible to English who says in the prologue of the translation: "This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People."


The puzzle is:

1. Was Ashoka's declaration the inspiration for Wycliffe (and Lincoln) through intermediary storytellers who took the phrase from India to Europe?

2. Is it just a coincidence?

We know of the transmission of stories westward from India as in the Panchatantra that was translated to Kalilah wa-Dimnah in Arabic (after the names of the two jackals Karataka and Damanaka). These stories as well those from the Katha-Sarita-Sagara became part of the Arabian Nights and Sindbad. Scholars have also noted parallels between the Panchatantra and Aesop's Fables.

For another explicit example from Europe, note the Christian legend of Barlaam and Josaphat (Bhagavan and Bodhisattva) which was a reworking of the story of Buddha's enlightenment. The original story was a Mahayana text that was translated into the Arabic and European languages.

The legend tells how an Indian king persecutes his own son, Josaphat, who astrologers have foretold will establish the Christian Church. In due course, Josaphat meets the hermit Saint Barlaam and converts to Christianity. In the end, the prince's father accepts the son's conversion and retires to the desert to spend his last days with the old teacher. The legend became so popular in Europe that, from time to time, the Church announced that their relics related had appeared miraculously and these were then installed with solemn ceremony. Barlaam and Josaphat were elevated to sainthood by Georgian and Greek churches.


Even nursery rhymes with nonsense words have travelled. Consider:

Eenie, meenie, miney, moe

catch a tiger by the toe

If he hollers let him go

eenie, meenie, miney moe

This appears in English for the first time in the 19th century. In Germany, where it was known earlier, it has the form:

Ene mene miste

Es rappelt in der Kiste

Ene mene meck

Und Du bist weg

Some claim that the original is the 1,500-year-old Sanskrit mantra (where words do not necessarily have meaning):

Ene mene dasphe

danda dasphe…

Of course, the English rhyme has also been copied in Hindi films as in:

Ina mina dika

daye dame nika

maka naka naka

akkara bakkar bambai bo

eena meena mo

Could Hocus Pocus, is used as an exclamation by magicians, also have an Indian connection? According to some etymologists, it is play on the sacramental blessing from the Mass, Hoc est corpus meum (this is my body); another theory derives it from the Latin hicce es doctus (here is the learned man). But there are exactly the same words in Kashmir, which are older and used as a magical formula. The Kashmiri rhyme begins with hukus bukus (which was used in an ICICI Bank commercial a few years ago):

hukus bukus

teli wan che kus

onum batta lodum degi

shaal kich kich waangano

Only the third line has a clear meaning which is "I got rice and put it in a pot". The rest is play on sounds.

Abracadabra! Perhaps the line from Ashoka's edict did travel to Europe and ended up in Abraham Lincoln's great speech.

Last updated: November 10, 2015 | 09:34
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