Why is the kathina robe so called?

Richard Gombrich


Every Theravādin monastery is supposed to hold an annual ceremony at which a monastic robe is made and offered to a monk considered particularly deserving. The decision to award it is one of the very few formal acts of the Sangha laid down in the canonical Vinaya, and the only one which is prescribed to happen annually. The robe (cīvara) is known as the kathina cīvara, and the name kathina also attaches to the ceremony as a whole. However, the etymology of kathina has been forgotten.

This article describes the modern ceremony. Comparing the kathina ceremony with funerals, I trace the origin of making monastic robes out of pieces stitched together to the earliest times. This reveals that kathina means “rough”, because originally that is what the robes were. Though nowadays lay piety demands that monks wear the finest cloth, the kathina ceremony reflects the prestige of the archaic.

Finally I garner some corroborative evidence from the Pali Vinaya section on the kathina , though I show that part of the account of how the ceremony came into being has been lost. The Ven. Analayo has kindly checked for me the parallel sections of the Vinayas surviving only in Chinese, but they turn out to be of little use. Though itself damaged, the Pali version is clearly the oldest.

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