Showing posts with label Afterlife. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Afterlife. Show all posts

25 September 2015

The Complex Phenomenon of Religion.

It's 25 years today since my father died. His death was one of the events that got me thinking about life, death, and all that. I dedicate this essay to:

Peter Harry Attwood (1935-1990).

Religion is sometimes portrayed as a simple phenomenon. As a simple crutch for the weak, as a "violent" control mechanism and so on. Although these kinds of criticisms sometimes contain a grain of truth, in fact religion more generally is a complex phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of a number of qualities, characteristics, or abilities that humans possess. In this essay I will try to outline a set of minimal common features of all religions and link them to an evolutionary account of humans.

The diagram below attempts to summarise some of the key factors involved and to show how these factors interact to produce the basic phenomena of religion. However, any given religion may include many more elements and be considerably more complex that this summary suggests. At the end of the essay I will add a few comments about Buddhism as a religion and about what makes Buddhism distinctive (or not).

Religion seems to minimally involve supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife. I have argued that belief in all these is "natural", by which I mean they are emergent properties of the way our brains work. I do not mean that these are necessarily accurate intuitions in the sense of being true. However, as ideas which have guided human behaviour they have been very successful in helping us go from being just another species of primate, to the highly sophisticated cultures we live in today (and I include all present day human cultures in this). What follows is not a critique, but a description. There are possible critiques of every point, both in the conclusions of religieux and of the reasons for things that I am proposing here. But I want to outline a story about religion without getting bogged down in the critique of it. In most cases I've made the critique previously. 

Supernatural agents emerge from a combination of such properties of the brain such as pareidolia (the propensity to see faces everywhere); agent detection and theory of mind (Barrett; see also Why Are Karma and Rebirth Are Still Plausible?). Fundamental to the supernatural is ontological dualism and the matter/spirit dichotomy.

Theory of mind is tuned to make living in social groups feasible and means we tend to see other agents in human terms (anthropomorphism). Supernatural agents are human-like in their desires and goals, and counter-intuitive only in that they lack a physical body. Because this is minimally counter-intuitive it makes supernatural agents more interesting and memorable. Thus, human communities tend to be surrounded by a halo of supernatural agents. Lacking bodies, supernatural agents may possess associated abilities, such as the ability to move unhindered by physical obstructions, but they are often located in some physical object, such as a tree, rock or home. Those who can bridge the two worlds of matter and spirit we call shaman. Though of course spirits also operate in the two worlds, if spirits remained wholly in their spirit world they would be a lot less interesting. For some reason the spirit world seems inherently leaky. Shamans interpret and use knowledge gained from spirits to guide decision making in the material realm. Supernatural agents can become gods and when they do, shamans become priests.

Fundamental to this account of religion is the social nature of human beings. Any account of religion which rejects the social nature of humanity or demonizes the basic structures and functions of human groups is simply uninteresting (so that is almost all psychology and most of social theory inspired by French philosophers). Unfortunately in this libertarian age there is a tendency to take a dismissive or critical stance on human groups. Social living is undoubtedly involves compromises for the individual. But the evolutionary benefits massively outweigh any perceived loss of autonomy. What's more human social groups look and work very much like other primate social groups. This has been apparent since Richard Leakey sent three young women to Africa to study chimps, gorillas and baboons in the 1960s. The most revealing of these studies was Jane Goodall's work on chimpanzees at Gombe stream, which showed chimp groups to share many traits with human groups. As social animals our behaviour is tuned towards being a member of a group, as it is in all other social primates.

Robin Dunbar showed that the average size of group that a social animal generally lives in, is correlated with the ratio of the volume of neo-cortex to the rest of the brain. For humans this predicts an average group size of ca. 150, a figure for which there is now considerable empirical support. The Dunbar Number represents a cognitive limit, beyond which we cannot maintain knowledge of each member of a group, their roles in hierarchies, mating preferences, past interactions, that is the information we need to be a well informed group member. In practice humans typically organise themselves into units of about 15, 50, 150, 500, 1500 and so on. Groups of different sizes serving different functions and operating with differing levels of intimacy and knowledge. As well as collecting information through observation, we use theory of mind to infer the disposition of other group members. The smallest viable unit of humanity is probably the 150 sized group.

Social living depends for it's success on the active participation of all group members and social norms. Norms are primarily to help the group function effectively. But they may work indirectly, for example to help strengthen group identity "We are the people who....". If social animals were, as economists claim, fundamentally selfish, then groups could not function. We are adapted to being cooperative. But there are temptations to freeload or break other group norms. Up to around the 150 number, groups maintain norms by simple observation. Everyone knows everyone else's business. 

Anthropomorphism allows us to relate to non-human beings as part of our group. We also have the ability to empathise with strangers, though empathy evolved to help us understand the internal disposition of other individuals or small groups. Empathy is personal, which is why we humans still have trouble comprehending large scale disasters without some Jarrod Diamond has noted that in places like the highlands of New Guinea, where the population is almost at a maximum density for hunter-gather lifestyles and thus competition for resources is intense, that tolerance of strangers is low (which is also true of other primate species). In many instances, strangers are killed on sight. However surpluses and trade between groups makes tolerance of strangers more feasible. Thus the factors which lead to civilisations (i.e. much larger groupings) also facilitated tolerance of strangers. Ara Norenzayan has argued that religion with "Big Gods" was a major factor in enabling the large scale cooperation implied by civilisation. Large groups mean that keeping track of each group member becomes more difficult. Monitoring compliance with behavioural norms starts to break down. 

Social groups which perceive an active halo of supernatural beings incorporated into their daily lives may rely on these supernatural agents as monitors of group norms (Norenzayan). In which case the role of the shaman is also expanded. The beings involved in monitoring are likely to become more active and present. They may begin to play an active role, for example punishing transgressive behaviour. Because supernatural agents are already counter-intuitive in lacking physical bodies, they can easily evolve in this direction. Those involved in monitoring the social sphere have a tendency to become omnipresent (the better to see you) and, as a result, omniscient. Once they start dishing our punishments they can become omnipotent as well. Thus ordinary supernatural agents can become gods.

Once gods emerge they typically require more elaborate acknowledgement, rather like a dominant member of the tribe gets first preference in food and mates. A group may enact elaborate and costly rituals aimed at securing the cooperation of spirits and gods. Making sacrifices (in the sense of giving scarce resources) helps to encourage participation in group norms (see also Martyrs Maketh the Religion). Costly sacrifices bolster the faith of followers. Those who officiate at such ceremonies are likely shaman initially, but become focussed on interpreting and enacting the will of the gods rather than spirits in general. In other words they become priests. The prestige of priests rises with the prestige of the gods they serve. Along with sacrifice, priests may introduce arbitrary taboos that help define group identity. As Foucault noted, the power of the group or leaders to shape the subject is matched by the desire of the subject to be shaped. As members of a social species we make ourselves into subjects of power; or even into the kind of subjects (selves) that accept the compromises of social lifestyles. As social primates we evolved to participate in social groups with hierarchies. On the other hand evolution no longer entirely defines us - we did not evolve to use written communication for example (which is why writing is so much more difficult than talking).

We have a tendency to think in terms of reasons and purposes - teleology. In teleological thinking, things happen for a reason. We exist for a reason. The world exists for a reason. Things happen for a reason. In modern life we often seek reasons in individual psychology. In the past other types of reasons included supernatural interference and magic. The stories we tell about these reasons for events become our mythology. Even so we are left with questions. If we are here for a reason, we want to know what it is (because it is far from obvious to most people). If following the group norms or the prescriptions of gods is supposed to make everything run smoothly, then why does it not? If gods are members of our tribe and can intervene to help us, why do they not?

Despite the emphasis on keeping group norms and associating this with the success of the group, life is patently unfair. We can be the very best group member, keep all the rules, and yet we still suffer misfortune, illness, and death. The world is unjust. But we tend to believe the opposite, i.e. that the world is just, that reasons make it so. If everything happens for a reason, then bad things also happen for a reason. But what could that reason possibly be? The meeting of injustice and teleology is extremely fruitful for religion, but before getting further into it we need to consider the afterlife.

The matter/spirit dichotomy seems to emerge naturally from generalising about human experience. Some people have vivid experiences of leaving their body for example which, on face value, would only be possible if the locus of experiencing is separate from the physical body. The very metaphors that we use to talk about aspects of lived experience tend to frame the matter/spirit dichotomy in a particular way. Matter is dull, lifeless, rigid. Spirit is light, lively, and infinitely flexible. Matter is low, spirit high. And so on (see Metaphors and Materialism). We understand life through Vitalism: living beings are matter made flexible by an inspiration of spirit. Spirit in many languages is closely associated with the breath—spiritus, qi, prāṇa, ātman, pneuma—perhaps the most important characteristic of living beings in the pre-scientific world.

The greatest injustice seems to be that our breath leaves us, i.e. we die. All living beings act to sustain and maintain their own existence, their own life. Self-consciousness gives us the knowledge of the certainty of our own death. In a dualistic worldview, death occurs when the spirit leaves the body. The body returns to being inanimate matter (dust to dust). In this worldview, spirit is not affected by death in the same way as matter. Indeed spirit is not affected by death at all. Once the spirit leaves the body a number of post-mortem possibilities exist: hanging around as a supernatural agent; travelling to another world (to the realm of the ancestors for example, or to paradise); or taking another human form. The precise workings are specific to cultures, but all cultures seem to have an afterlife and the variations are limited to one or other of these possibilities.

Something interesting happens when we combine normative morality, teleological thinking, and the afterlife. If things happen for a reason and one of the main reasons is our own behaviour and there is injustice, then it stands to reason, that our own behaviour is (potentially) a cause of injustice. We link behaviour to outcomes. And if everything happens to a reason it's hard to imagine the morally good not being rewarded and the morally wicked not being punished. And if something bad happens, then maybe we have transgressed in some way. In which case a shaman or priest must consult the unseen, but all seeing supernatural monitors (this is incidentally why the Buddha had to have access to this knowledge). This world, the material world composed primarily of matter, is manifestly unjust. By contrast, an afterlife is very much a world of spirit and as the basic metaphors show, the world of spirit is the polar opposite of the world of matter. If the world of matter is unjust (and it is) then the world of spirit is by necessity just. The rules of the afterlife must be very different. Gods hold sway there for example. Gods whose reason for being is to supervise the behaviour of humans. So it is entirely unsurprising that the function of an afterlife, in those communities which practice morality, is judgement of the dead. This happens in all the major religions, and dates back at least to the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead.

Here we have, I think, all the major components of religion. And they emerge from lower-level, relatively simple properties of the (social) human mind at work. Thus religion is a natural phenomenon. It is not, as opponents of religion like to assert, something artificial that is superimposed on societies, but something that naturally emerges out of anatomically modern humans with a pre-scientific worldview living together. If chimps were only a little more like us, they too would develop like this. Neanderthals almost certainly had religion of a sort. The naturalness of religion predicts that every society of humans ought to have religion or something like it. And they do, except where people are WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic. WEIRD people are psychological outliers from the rest of humanity. But WEIRD culture is build upon layers of religious culture, with Christianity superimposed on early forms of religion (and perhaps several layers of this). Again, for emphasis, the naturalness of religion does not mean that a religious account of the world is either accurate or precise. It is certainly successful, depending on how one measures success, but as a description of the world the religious view tends to be flawed making it both inaccurate and imprecise. 

Religious communities have some distinct advantages over non-religious communities in terms of sustaining group identity and encouraging cooperation.  The Abrahamic religions certainly have many millions of followers, and the followers of these religions have established a vast hegemony over most of the planet. On the other hand Christianity seems to be waning. Religious ideologies are giving way to political ideologies. Communism was one such that is also on the wane. Neoliberalism seems to have survived the near collapse of the world's economies to continue to dominate public discourse on politics and economics. Liberal Humanism seems to be a potent force for good still, though as we have seen it cannot be successfully linked to Neoliberal economics. 


There are those who argue that Buddhism is not a religion. This is naive at best, and probably disingenuous. Buddhism has all the same kinds of concerns as other religions, all of the main components outlined above—supernatural agents, morality, and an afterlife—and many of the secondary components as well. In many ways, Buddhism is simply another manifestation of the same dynamic that produces religious ideas and practices in other groups. Sure we have an abstract supernatural monitor, but karma does exactly the same job as Anubis, Varuṇa, Mazda, or Jehovah in monitoring behaviour. It's merely a quantitative difference, not a qualitative one. WEIRD Buddhists play down the halo of supernatural beings, but traditional Buddhist societies in Asia all have folk beliefs which involve spirits (e.g. Burmese nat) and many similar animistic beliefs, such as tree spirits (rukkhadevatā) are Canonical. 

David Chapman (@meaningness) and I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter a few days ago (storified). DC noted that some of those who are opposed to secularisation of mindfulness training, are concerned about disconnecting mindfulness from "Buddhist ethics". They seem to argue that the problem is that mindfulness without ethics is either meaningless or dangerous, or both. DC's point was that there was nothing distinctive about Buddhist ethics and that, in the USA at least, what masquerades as "Buddhist" ethics is simply the prevailing ethics of WEIRD North America. So to argue against mindfulness being taught separately from Buddhist ethics is meaningless. For example Tricycle Magazine has run positive stories on Buddhists in the US military. If soldiers can be Buddhists, then Buddhist ethics really do have no meaning. Indeed there is nothing very distinctive about Buddhist ethics more generally, nothing that distinguishes Buddhist ethics from, say, Christian ethics. Sure, the stated rationale for being ethical is different, but the outcome is the same: love thy neighbour. (David has started his blog series on this: “Buddhist ethics” is a fraud).

Certainly Buddhism is not the only religion to use a variety of religious techniques for working with the mind, including concentration and reflection exercises. Mediation was a word in English long before Buddhism came on the scene (noted ca. 1200 CE). Arguably all the practices that we associate with Buddhism were in fact borrowed from other religions anyway (particularly Brahmanism and Jainism). According to Buddhism's own mythology, meditation was already being practised to a very high degree before Buddhism came into being. The Buddha simply adapted procedures he had already learned.

So is there anything about Buddhism as a religion that is distinctive? Some would argue that pratītya-samutpāda is distinctively Buddhist. However too many of us portray conditioned arising as a theory of cause and effect, or worse, a Theory of Everything. It is certainly a failure as the latter, and far from being very useful in the former role (the words involved don't even mean caused). Since almost everyone seems confused about the domain of application of this idea, one wonders whether Buddhists can lay claim to the theory at all. If Buddhists make pratītyasamutpāda into an ontology then pratītyasamutpāda would hardly seem to be Buddhist any longer. Nowadays, Buddhists all seem to think that having read about nirvāṇa or śūnyatā in a book makes one an expert on "reality".

DC and I tentatively agreed that any distinction that Buddhism might have is probably in the area of cultivating states in which sense-experience and ordinary mental-experience cease, what I would call nirodha-samāpatti or śūnyatā-vimokṣa etc. It is these states in particular that seem to promote the transformation of the mind that makes Buddhism distinctive. It's just unfortunate that we have so many books about these states, and so many people talking about them from having read the books (and writing books on the basis of having read the books), and so few people who experience such states. The thing that distinguishes Buddhism is something that only a tiny minority are realistically ever going to seriously cultivate, and probably a minority of them are going to succeed in experiencing. So Buddhism in practice, for the vast majority consists in beliefs and activities that are not distinctively Buddhist at all - loving your neighbours, communal singing, relaxation techniques, philosophical speculation, propitiation of supernatural agents, and so on.

And while some people are having awakenings, the level of noise through which they have to communicate is overwhelming. Buddhists have adopted so much psychological and psycho-analytic jargon that Buddhism as presented can seem indistinguishable from either at times. One gets the sense that today's "lay" Buddhism is closely aligned with the goals of psychologists. Not only this but we also get a lot of interference from pseudo-science, Advaita Vedanta, and home grown philosophies.

So, to sum up, religion is a natural phenomenon. It emerges from, is an emergent property of, a brain evolved for living in large social groups. A religious worldview makes sense to so many people, even WEIRD people, because it fits with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Buddhism sits squarely in the middle of this as another religious worldview. But this does not mean that a religious worldview is accurate or precise, or that a secularised version of religion is an improvement on religion per se. Secularised versions of Buddhism are simply religion tailored for WEIRD people. It is more appealing to secularists who none the less feel that something is missing from their lives (because they are evolved to be religious). If Buddhism is distinctive, it is distinctive in ways that the vast majority of people will never have access to.

The main point I take from this is that religion is comprehensible. People who hold to religious views are comprehensible. While I think religious views are erroneous, I can see why so many people disagree, why religion remains so compelling for so many people. I can sympathise with them. And while I'm not an evangelist, it does make it easier for me to stay in dialogue with, for examples, members of my family who are committed Christians. As with the problem of communicating evolution, part of the problem with religion remaining plausible is the sheer ineptitude of scientists as communicators - their remarkable ability to understand string theory, or whatever, seems to be matched by an astounding lack of insight into their own species. And philosophers, whose job to is make the world comprehensible, have also largely failed. They both fail on the level of making new discoveries comprehensible and on the level of communicating why new discoveries are important. And when they fail, priests and other charlatans step into the gap, and that too is understandable. 


References to particular works or thinkers that are not linked to directly can be checked in the bibliography tab of the blog. 

21 August 2015

Why Are Karma and Rebirth (Still) Plausible (for Many People)? Part II

Part I of this essay introduced Justin L. Barrett's ideas on reflective and non-reflective beliefs. Non-reflective beliefs are formed through experience of interacting with the physical world and unconsciously assimilated from people around us as we grow up. Reflective beliefs are thought through, but are shaped by non-reflective beliefs before we become aware of them. We find concepts plausible to the extent that they match our existing non-reflective beliefs. In part II we move on to discussing how supernatural beliefs fit into this basic pattern. 

Minimally Counter-Intuitive Concepts 

Belief in supernatural agents, gods or ghosts, does not require a special part of the brain. What is required is a concept that mostly fits our non-reflective beliefs, and thus feels intuitive, but that has a few counter-intuitive characteristics, enough to make it interesting and memorable. 
"These minimally counter-intuitive beliefs may be characterized as meeting most of the assumptions that describers and categorizers generate—thus being easy to understand, remember, and believe—but as violating just enough of these assumptions to be attention demanding and to have an unusually captivating ability to  assist in the explanation of certain experiences. "(Barrett 2004: 22)
Concepts that are maximally counter-intuitive are simply not believable.  Concepts that are maximally intuitive are believed without question and become part of the background. It is the concept that is mostly compliant with our non-reflective beliefs, but which violates them in an interesting way that captures our attention. Barrett offers the following examples: A dog that grows old and dies is unremarkable; but a shoe that behaved the same way would be a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Similarly an inanimate object that talks, an agent that can break the laws of physics, or a plant that eats animals are minimally counter-intuitive. Of course the latter really exists in the form of the Venus-flytrap. So being minimally counter-intuitive does not rule out the concept from being true.

A dog that talked might be minimally counter-intuitive, but a dog that wore a suit and ran a Fortune 500 company would be violate too many of our non-reflective beliefs and would be considered bizarre. Though this would work in a cartoon. Barrett asserts that what counts as bizarre varies according to individual experiences and cultural factors, but that whether a concept is minimally counter-intuitive does not vary. This is because all people have roughly the same collection of mental tools doing the categorising and describing that produce non-reflective beliefs. 

If a concept has too many counter-intuitive elements it seems implausible, but just enough makes the concept more interesting and memorable. And such concepts constitute a special group in Barrett's theory, precisely because they are interesting and memorable. Myths, legends, films and cartoons all play with this distinction. For example the talking wolf in the story of Little Red Riding-hood or the little bear in Goldie Locks are able to play an active role in the story and help to make the story memorable. Similarly for Pinocchio the wooden toy who becomes a real little boy. Many religious beliefs fall into the category of being minimally counter-intuitive, or are made up of minimally counter-intuitive elements. 

One of the key minimally counter-intuitive ideas is that death, the end of the physical processes of life, does not mean the end of mental processes. Children, for example, can readily conceive that death means the end of physical processes, but regardless of religious background, they tend to assume that mental processes continue independently of the body (Bering et al. 2005). So they are able to correctly assess that dead people no longer need to eat, but will assume that they still get hungry. This is very similar to the belief behind Brahmanical ancestor worship involving offerings of food and drink to the departed (preta). The offerings are transformed into smoke by the fire, the smoke drifts up into the sky where it nourishes the departed. Buddhists (rather cruelly) parodied the Brahmanical pretas as a class of tormented beings who can never slake their thirst or sate their hunger. Children of all faiths and none seem to reason this way about death from an early age. They do not see death as a full-stop, but assume that mental processes of the dead keep going, despite the death of the body. Many factors go to sustaining and reinforcing this kind of mind/body dualism. But underlying it are non-reflective descriptions of agents that do not rely on embodiment, so that unseen agents are minimally counter-intuitive. 

As Thomas Metzinger has said: 
For anyone who actually had [an out-of-body experience] it is almost impossible not to become an ontological dualist afterwards. In all their realism, cognitive clarity and general coherence, these phenomenal experiences almost inevitably lead the experiencing subject to conclude that conscious experience can, as a matter of fact, take place independently of the brain and body. (Metzinger 2009: 78)
The separation of mind and body is a minimally counter-intuitive concept. Most of the time we experience our minds and bodies as inseparable. The out-of-body experience conflicts with this in an interesting and memorable way and it also consistent with our other non-reflective beliefs about death. We can go further, because this concept of being disembodied goes towards explanations of the world that address some of our deepest fears. If the thinking part of us can exist disembodied, then the Just World (or Moral Universe) Theory is a possibility, because life after death is a possibility. An afterlife is attractive and satisfying on all kinds of levels. So a complex of non-reflective and reflective ideas and concepts reinforce each other and make religious beliefs seem plausible, even though they contain counter-intuitive elements. It is this explanatory power that explains the success of religious ideas, despite the presence of counter-intuitive aspects. 

To summarise, a concept will seem plausible to us if it fits with many of our non-reflective beliefs (feels right), and also with our current reflective beliefs (makes sense). The relationships between reflective and non-reflective beliefs is recursive, a reflective belief seems plausible if it concurs with our non-reflective beliefs, but is also shaped by them to be more plausible. A minimally counter-intuitive concept fits with a large number of our non-reflective beliefs, but violates a small number of them. This feature makes the minimally counter-intuitive concept interesting and memorable. If the minimally counter-intuitive concept can also be put to use explaining mysteries, then it can seem extra-ordinarily plausible in our minds, despite the remaining counter intuitive elements. For example, religious miracles are implausible, but in the context of religious belief as a whole, this implausibility is what makes them interesting and memorable.

Of course many religious ideas, such as the Christian creator/law-giver/saviour God or Buddhist karma, are neither simple nor minimally counter-intuitive. Barrett offers two solutions to this problem.

Firstly a complex belief might be made up of parts that are minimally counter-intuitive. For example the idea of life after death is minimally counter-intuitive. The idea that morality can be understood via an accounting metaphor is broadly intuitive and seems to be common to many cultures (not least to Buddhist and Christian accounts of morality). And a just world is also a minimally counter-intuitive concept. So a complex concept such as a just world involving moral accounting in the afterlife, which is not itself minimally counter-intuitive, might not violate the principle because its parts are minimally counter-intuitive. And this this may be facilitated by the way we think about such things. When trying to think about karma we seem to take parts of it one at a time. Although Buddhism teaches that "actions cause rebirth"; we tend to think in terms of "actions have consequences" and a range of other partial concepts are are either intuitive or minimally counter-intuitive, so that the whole seems plausible.

Secondly systematic religious education (not to say indoctrination) and experience of religious practice might shift our non-reflective beliefs, so that what we feel to be intuitive may shift to accommodate what was previously felt to be counter-intuitive. For example we may not find "higher states of consciousness" an intuitive idea until we begin to meditate and start to experience them. The reinforcement that comes from being in a group dedicated to certain propositions cannot be under-estimated. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it:
"We know that people can maintain an unshakable faith in any proposition, however absurd, when they are sustained by a community of like-minded believers."
However we've already seen in Part I of this essay, that under time pressure people tend to revert to non-reflective views about God. Some complex theological concepts crumble when people don't have time to be reflective. We may consciously take on religious beliefs for reasons other than their plausibility or implausibility. We may, for example, want to fit in with a community we find attractive. I think Barrett plays down, or overlooks, the importance of social factors of religious beliefs in his account.

We've already mentioned in passing that unseen agents meet the criteria of being minimally counter-intuitive (they are typical of agents except for the fact of being invisible). We must now consider in more detail how our brains process information about agents.

Finding Agents Everywhere

A key mental tool in religious beliefs is what Barrett calls the Agent Detective Device. What he means by this is the complex function of our minds which scans the environment for agent directed activity. This ability has clear evolution advantages. We need to be able to identify the presence of other agents. It is a key ability of social animals that we recognise others of our kind as agents of the same type as ourselves. Social primates, for example, work together to ensure that the group has gets enough food and is protected from predators. Predator detection is another key task for agent detection. When we're outdoors there are all kinds of sights and sounds, all constantly changing. Working out if the bump in the night is something to be afraid of, has clear survival benefits. And better to err on the side of caution and have a first approximation that the sight or sound is an agent, because taking evasive action from an inanimate object costs us little, whereas failing to take it against a predator might cost us our lives. This is why noises at night cause our hearts to race. That raised heart-rate prepares us for decisive action that may save our lives. For this reason Barrett refers to the Agent Detection Device as hyperactive, hence his acronym for it is HADD.

Barrett does not go into this, but it's seems that humans are not the only animals who do agent detection in this way. Mammals and birds also scan the environment for agents and tend to err on the side of treating movement as caused by an agent. This video of a cat being freaked out by a cucumber is both amusing and demonstrates the principle. The cat's owners have sneakily placed a cucumber behind it while it was focussed on eating. On seeing the harmless vegetable it launches into a spectacular defensive manoeuvre until recognition dampens the response. Similarly scarecrows deter crows because they set off the HADD.

One of the consequences of being predisposed to detect agency in the environment is that we attribute agency to things on very little evidence. Many a time we attribute agency to insentient and inanimate objects. Many people treat their computers as having agency for example, and this may be why artificial intelligence, in the sense of a human-like mind residing in a computer, seems so plausible to so many people. A sentient computer is minimally counter-intuitive, though scientists are not even close to creating an artificial mind. We also invoke Agent Detection in retrospect when we observe behaviour which is apparently goal seeking. Anyone who has sat around a fire, must have sometimes suspected that the smoke deliberately follows them wherever they sit. English people talk about the weather in a way that suggests they believe some moderately malign agent uses rain to torment them. Sometimes nature appears to pursue us, block us, or otherwise interact with us in a directed way. Our non-reflective fall-back is to seek an agent behind the action. Unseen agents are not entirely intuitive, but are minimally counter-intuitive.

Once an object is identified as an agent, or once a behaviour is identified as directed and therefore indicative of agency, it is passed to the Theory of Mind Device. The Theory of Mind Device recognises other agents as having a mind like ours, i.e. as having thoughts, emotions, desires, aversions, memories etc. We model the inner life of the agent in order to predict what its next action will be and how we can best respond to that. With animals for example we predict whether it is likely to attack or retreat. We combine this with our knowledge of animals to predict the consequences of our own actions in these terms. This seems to be the evolutionary purpose of imagination, i.e. to model possible actions and consequences in order to determine a course of action. In the case of other members of our social group this ability to model potential actions and consequences is essential to being a group member.

Although Barrett does not say so, we might have extended his observation about hyperactivity of the Agent Detection Device, by observing that we are also predisposed to seeing all agents in human terms. In other words there is a strong tendency to anthropomorphise non-human agents, to see their motivations for acting as being like our own. In the case of the dearly departed, we still identify them as agents, albeit disembodied, and our Theory of Mind Device describes what their inner life is like, and predicts what other kinds of properties the agent might have. Brahmins feed their departed ancestors because they understand that they themselves would hate to go hungry in the post-mortem gap between death and rebirth in heaven. It's not blind ritual or stupidity, as some Western scholars have ignorantly supposed, but empathy based on some very plausible suppositions that motivates the ritual behaviour in this case. That so many first world people fail to appreciate this and empathise with it, is more of an indictment of us, than of them. Which is not to say that ancestor worship is based on facts. It isn't. But it is a natural conclusion to come to and also expresses important values of caring for the community. 

Matthew Tyler Boden (2015) recently observed that supernatural beliefs do actually provide consolation. They help to explain why things occur and help people to understand themselves and the world (227). His 2015 study concluded:
The current study extends existing research by demonstrating that supernatural beliefs, broadly and peculiar beliefs, specifically, are considered adaptive in several ways, and the manners in and extents to which they are considered adaptive are associated with psychological benefits (229-30).
I know from long association with religious people of various stripes that part of the attraction of religious belief of any kind is the consolation it provides in the face of misfortune, old age, sickness, and death. 

Rationalists would have us replace religion with science. However, science is not always consoling or it is so complex that is does not help to explain to ordinary people why things happen. Also it explains how things happen, but not why. Science suggests that things just happen according physical laws and mostly without agents. This is not consoling (even to me and I love science). But worse, this view conflicts with our non-reflective beliefs about the world. If the question is how we should act with respect to other people, then a solid grounding in Newtonian mechanics is no help. General Relativity is more accurate, but still no help. Nor does Quantum mechanics shed any light. The "sciences" which might shed light on these subjects, i.e. the social sciences, are often hardly science at all. They routinely come out with simple truisms. I recall for example, seeing a scientific article that concluded that "time heals". Or they are deeply counter-intuitive - we want to have sex with one parent and murder the other. Or the vacillate between contradictory conclusions depending on the fashion of the day. From the point of view of the person in the street, the scientists cannot seem to make up their minds about anything. Whereas religious ideas seem "time tested and true", though this is an illusion since religious people argue more than scientists about what constitutes truth, and are prone to drastic direction changes inspired by revelations. From this point of view it starts to become clear why scientists have failed to persuade all, or even most, religious people to abandon religion. I would argue that the rise in secularism is not driven by people embracing science, but by a creeping nihilism. Not by finding meaning in physics, but by deciding that there is no meaning. And this is reflected in the growing prominence of Utilitarianism and Popularism in politics. 

What people actually believe is almost always a potpourri of ideas from a range of different sources. Modern Buddhists are unconsciously, but powerfully, influenced by the currents of modernity and have often tacitly adjusted traditional beliefs about karma and rebirth to fit with these currents. Many people are surprised when I tell them what the Pāḷi texts actually say about karma and rebirth. Very few, for example, seem to have grasped that the principle vipāka of kamma is punabhāva or rebirth. The Buddha of the Pāḷi Canon does not teach that "actions have consequences", so much as he teaches that "actions cause rebirth". 

A real problem with disembodied agents is that they have a superficial explanatory power and fit into our non-reflective beliefs about life. The fact that there are also counter-intuitive aspects to the belief is not, according to Barrett, a reason not to believe. Without specific training on how to observe events, we may miss the real extent to which a belief conflicts with the facts. An example I have used before, is that I know people who live in a "haunted" house. Many people who have lived there describe having met supernatural entities in the night-time. On face value a concept of a disembodied agent disturbing their sleep explains the situation. Then we read a description of sleep paralysis and realise that these particular hauntings are all classic examples of sleep paralysis, which does not involve any outside agency or disembodied mind. And yet some of my haunted acquaintances are reluctant to accept the sleep paralysis explanation because they are invested in the ghost: in a community of Romantics the supernatural interpretation is an important sources of kudos and social capital; having seen a ghost makes it more likely that the person will be seen as incrowd; but it also bolsters the non-reflective beliefs about the matter/spirit split and the afterlife. As Metzinger points out such experiences can be compelling in themselves, but they also often occur in a milieu where they fit hand in glove with other beliefs. Confirmation bias, that built in feature of reasoning, ensures that we treat confirmation of our beliefs differently that contradiction. We're likely to dismiss contradiction as irrelevant. 

We have particular ways of reasoning about agency. Most of the time it is transparent to us. We are aware of the results of this cogitation, but not the process. Agency Detection and Theory of Mind work unconsciously and produce non-reflective beliefs that both form the basis of comparison for reflection and also shape the reasoning process itself. With some introspection and a will to challenge conventional views we can have insights to some extent into how our minds work. What Barrett is doing is applying knowledge gained from neuroscience to construct a plausible narrative of how we navigate our world.


I find this account of belief in supernatural agency very helpful. It shows that belief in such agency is neither stupid nor crazy. It's not that believers are somehow inferior and non-believers superior. Religious belief is consistent with our non-reflective assumptions about the world, it is minimally counter-intuitive (or based on minimally counter-intuitive concepts), and emerges from the normal functioning of our minds. It is natural to have supernatural beliefs. Taken with ideas on how we make decisions, I think we begin to see why religious beliefs, like karma & rebirth, seem so plausible to so many people; and why simply arguing against them, or presenting "scientific" facts is not sufficient to change people's minds.

Karma & rebirth fit many of our non-reflective beliefs about the world. Although they contain counter-intuitive elements, these are not so great as to cause doubts in most people's minds. Indeed they make the concepts minimally counter-intuitive and thus more interesting and memorable. The explanations offered by karma & rebirth seem very satisfying. Many of my colleagues in the Triratna Order and acquaintances in the wider Buddhist world find that karma & rebirth both fit intuitively with their non-reflective beliefs, or as they say it both "feels right" and "makes sense". Rebirth seems consistent with how the world works for many people, especially if they have no training in Empiricism, and even for some who do. Karma, especially the more modernist "actions have consequences" style of karma belief, even more so. This is precisely what Barrett's theory predicts with respect to karma & rebirth. Arguing that karma & rebirth are counter-intuitive is not productive at this point, because it is precisely because the counter-intuitive elements that make them seem so plausible.

I follow Damasio in understanding the process of decision making as involving assessing our emotional responses to concepts. When a concept is consistent with non-reflective beliefs it feels good. When it conflicts with non-reflective beliefs, it feels bad. Feeling good, is more or less the same as feeling true. With minimal introspection we know what feels right, what feels intuitive, and we decide reflectively what seems true. Our reflective beliefs are shaped by and cohere with our non-reflective beliefs. If we ourselves or those close to us have experiences which can be interpreted as confirming our reflective beliefs as well, then we are ready to accept this. And as Metzinger points out in the case of out-of-body experiences, these kinds of experience are relatively common and extra-ordinarily persuasive. More so amongst a community of meditators.

In this way of thinking about the way we understand our world and make decisions, we also find the seeds of dissatisfaction and disappointment. While the "feels good = right" equation might have worked for pre-civilisation human beings, it does not work once we start living with the hyper-stimulation that comes with moderate levels of civilisation. And this may be why the upsurge in religious thinking in India is associated with the second urbanisation in the Central Ganges Valley.

The European Enlightenment bequeathed us two methods of approaching the world. The first was to pay close attention and to use instruments to get closer to the object, along with  standardised forms of measurement of increasing accuracy. The first such instruments used glass lenses to magnify objects, allowing us to see in more detail. We naturally seek to identify the regularities in our experience, so simply by paying close attention we improve the accuracy of our theories of the world. But the killer app for empiricism is not measurement per se, it is the second method, comparing notes. It is the comparing of notes that undermines the generalisations that any one person makes based on their experiences. Having multiple witnesses comparing measurements does indeed reveal the nature of the universe in a way that is almost impossible for the individual. The process of unravelling that nature is far from being finished, if only because each advance tends to also improve the accuracy and precision with which we can observe and measure. And limits of this improvement have yet to be reached.

The Enlightenment approach to understanding the world led to a devaluing of individual experience to some extent. Because if you are the only person who notices a phenomenon then it gets demoted to being an illusion at best and an hallucination at worse (presuming the witness is genuine and credible). This product of the Enlightenment provoked the reactionary Romantic attempt to revalorise individual experience. Romanticism is very influential in the English speaking world and has influenced how we see the arts especially. More particularly there are very strong threads of Romanticism in modern Buddhism, which are dominant because so few Buddhists have direct experience of practising Empiricism and so many have been taught to think of Empiricism as an enemy. Romantics like to validate individual experiences, the more unusual the better. The individual who has a peculiar experience is automatically seen as confirming the existence of a non-material world (essentially a world of spirit - see  Metaphors and Materialism). For a Romantic, unexplained phenomenon have the power of undermining reason and pointing to mysticism that cannot be explained by Empiricism because the experience is purely individual. 

It's important to understand the dynamic at work in the human mind, the inseparability of mind and body, of thoughts and emotions, the dynamic of what makes a plausible concept. Firstly it is important when we set out to examine our own conditioning and the views which shape our understanding of the world in order to free ourselves from intoxication with experience. Secondly, when we try to persuade religieux of our empirically derived point of view. In the first case this is a powerful tool for self understanding. We can see how views are like a gravity well into which we unconsciously fall and which takes a great effort to escape from. In a sense there is no such thing as a dispassionate point of view for the unliberated. What we must try to do is loosen the grip of views, by trying to see how views shape our world (our world of experience). It can takes years of practice to begin to see how the views we were conditioned to accept non-reflectively as children shape us, and to become disillusioned and disenchanted enough to set them aside. In the second case it means that we have to be extremely patient with people who do not share our views. Religious beliefs are some of the most intractable views there are, since they stem from our deepest desires and aversions. Arguing is unlikely to help. A Buddhist with no training in Empiricism, a strong conditioning in Romanticism, and a stock of personal experiences and anecdotes based on doing Buddhist practices, is not very susceptible to the argument I make here. I do not expect most Buddhists to be even interested, let alone convinced. None-the-less I think for those with experience of, or interest in, Empiricism, this argument provides a powerful explanation for the situation we are in vis-à-vis more traditional religious believers. We are more likely to understand them, than they are to understand us. And thus the onus is on us to be understanding.

It seems to me increasingly vital that we Buddhists make a distinction in what our goals are. The early Buddhists, at least, were clear that they sought to understand experience. When we say that we aim at insights into reality we are simply barking up the wrong tree. Nothing about the Buddhist methods will shed light on reality. Buddhists have little or no contribution to make regarding the understanding of reality. But Buddhist methods certainly do shed light on the nature of experience, particularly the first person perspective experience, and they certainly do provide some people with a sense of freedom from destructive patterns of behaviour. The trouble is that Buddhists find their own narratives about reality compelling.



Ardila, A.  (2015) A Proposed Neurological Interpretation of Language Evolution. Behavioural Neurology. doi: 10.1155/2015/872487. Epub 2015 Jun 1.

Barrett, Justin L. (2004) Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Altamira Press.

Bering et al. (2005) The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607.,90230,en.pdf

Blanco, Fernando; Barberia, Itxaso  & Matute, Helena. (2015) Individuals Who Believe in the Paranormal Expose Themselves to Biased Information and Develop More Causal Illusions than Nonbelievers in the Laboratory. PLoS ONE 10(7): e0131378. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131378

Boden, Matthew Tyler. (2015) Supernatural beliefs: Considered adaptive and associated with psychological benefits. Personality and Individual Differences. 86: 227–231. Via Science Direct.

Cima, Rosie. How Culture Affects Hallucinations. 22 Apr 2015.

Damasio, Antonio. (2006) Descarte's Error. London: Vintage Books.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014) Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Lakoff, George. (1995) Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust.

Metzinger, Thomas. (2009) The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. Basic Books.

13 March 2015

Yama and Hell

Japanese Yama (Enma)
as a Confucian administrator.
Yama is a fascinating figure. He rules over the afterlife, but is not one of the devas. Vedic myth names him as the first man to find his way to the realm of the ancestors (pitṛloka). He is thus a culture hero who opens the possibility of rebirth for Brahmin ritualists. The realm of ancestors starts off on the same level of the devas, and is progressively demoted until it becomes a place of torment and punishment. In parallel, the departed (preta) are transformed from the fortunate ones going to their ancestors, to a tortured group of ghosts stuck in limbo.

As we saw in an earlier essay, Yama has a twin sister Yamī. In fact the most likely meaning of the name Yama is 'twin'. Yama has a counterpart in Iranian myth called Yima and, in Avestan myth, the incest of the twins helps to found the human race. In the Ṛgveda the brother resists incest with his sister. I've written about the curious fact that the Pali suttas record that the Śākyas claim descent from a sibling incest mating, which I take to be evidence of their connection to Iran (see Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism). Brother-sister incest was common amongst ancient Iranian royalty, a practice I believe them to have adopted on the Egyptian model. Some scholars have tried to link Yama to the Norse Ymir, but this is disputed.

Yama in RV 10.14 has two messengers which are brindle-coloured, four-eyed dogs (sārameyaú śuvā́nau caturakṣaú śabálau) with flared nostrils (urūṇasā́v). They wander among men, satisfying themselves on the breath of life (asu). However they are also keepers of the path (pathirákṣī)  and watch over men (nṛcákṣasau). Note that some authorities think that śabala (brindle) is cognate with Greek ḱerberos (spotted), the name of the Hades's 3-headed watchdog. Hades named his dog "Spot". The Buddhist Yama also two messengers though their form as dogs seems not to be mentioned.

Yama as we know him in early Buddhist texts is the ruler (rājan) of the rebirth destinations known as Niraya (Pali) or Naraka (Pāḷi & Sanskrit). PED derives niraya from nis+√i 'to go down' (nis- followed by a vowel become nir-). PED also cites a parallel in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit, though this is not listed in Edgerton's BHSD. However relating this to Classical and Vedic naraka is not straight forward. The vowels a and i are not interchangeable and the prefix nis or nir cannot simply become nar. It might work if there was an ancestral term such as nṛ or nara a real word meaning 'man, hero, person'. In secondary formations the vowel is strengthened to ra or ar. The word nṛ derives from an Indo-European root *ner and via Greek (a-nēr > andr) is the source of words such as androgynous, polyandrous, and philander. It comes into Sanskrit again as √nṛt 'to dance' (from the connotation of vigour). A naraka would then be something belonging to men or people, or heroic. And we can imagine Prakrit representing this as niraka. The substitution of -ya for -ka is conceivable as both can be adjectival. But this doesn't explain the nature of niraya/naraka. PED lists the etymology of naraka as "doubtful". I'll come back to this question after surveying the literature on Yama and Hell.

Yama in the Ṛgveda.

As a place of extreme suffering, the levels of Naraka are often referred to as "hell realms". One of the key early sources for the story of Yama as king of the afterlife is Ṛgveda 10.14.2:
yamó no gātúm prathamó viveda 
naíṣā́ gávyūtir ápabhartavā́ u |
yátrā naḥ pū́rve pitáraḥ pareyúr
enā́ jajñānā́ḥ pathíyā ánu svā́ḥ || 10.14.2 ||
Yama was first to discover this pasture that cannot be taken away.
Where our ancestor crossed over, all the born follow, by their own path.
As described here Yama seems to have been a man (or perhaps an earthly king) who was the first to discover the pitṛloka and be reborn (in heaven) along with his ancestors. Later in the Upaniṣads this is described as 'the world won by the ancestors' (pitṝṇāṃ jitaloka BU 4.3.33). Whether we should take this literally as representing the introduction of the idea of rebirth into Vedic cosmology or as a cosmogonical myth is not clear. Rebirth, though not absent as previously thought, is far from prominent in the Ṛgveda. Since rebirth is not a feature of Indo-European eschatology generally, it may be that as Indic speakers moved into the sub-continent they adopted a rebirth eschatology based on indigenous models. Rebirth does seem to be a regional feature of India thought. So taking this as a myth based on historical events is not entirely far-fetched.

There is a description of Yama's realm in a hymn to Soma (Ṛgveda 9.113.7-11). There an inextinguishable light (jyótir ájasraṃ) shines. It is a realm that is deathless and imperishable (amŕ̥te loké ákṣita). There heaven or the sky is bounded (avaródhanaṃ diváḥ) or perhaps "the inner apartment". It is the place where the dead are satisfied with sacrificial offerings (svadhā́ ca yátra tŕ̥ptiś ca). The refrain prayer of the Kavi in the deathless realm (amŕ̥te loké) is mā́m amŕ̥taṃ kr̥dhi "make me deathless". Which seems to be a prayer to be allowed to stay in Yama's realm instead of being reborn. As we will see in a subsequent essay the Ṛgveda is ambiguous on the question of the afterlife. This description is consistent with Vedic conceptions of heaven more generally. Thus the ancestors (pū́rve pitáraḥ), in this sūkta, seem to live in heaven.

We do find hell in the White or Śukla Yajurveda (30.5).
bráhmaṇe brāhmaṇáṃ kṣatrā́ya rājanyàṃ marúdbhyo váiśyaṃ tápase śūdráṃ támase táskaraṃ nārakā́ya vīraháṇaṃ pāpmáne klībám ākrayā́yā ayogū́ṃ kā́māya pum̐ścalū́m átikruṣṭāya māgadhám ||
For Brahman (Priesthood) he binds a Brahman to the stake; for Kshatra (Royalty) a Râjanya; for the Maruts a Vaisya; for Penance a Sûdra; for Darkness a robber; for Hell a homicide or a man who has lost his consecrated fire; for Misfortune a eunuch; for Venality an Ayogû; for Kâma a harlot; for Excessive Noise a Mâgadha. The Texts of the White Yajurveda, tr. Ralph T.H. Griffith, [1899], at
In the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (8th-6th century BCE?), as in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (sometimes considered to be an extra chapter of the ŚB), the dead are rewarded or punished according to their performance of the rituals. (Cuevas 271). By the time of the early Upaniṣads however the performance of rituals was seen as inferior to the performance of seeking ātman in one's heart (sometimes referred to as an internalised ritual). Ritual only leads to continued rebirth, whereas realisation of identity with ātman/brahman allowed the practitioner to escape birth and death all together. However there is still no sign of an afterlife destination in which wrong-doers are punished.

Yama in the Garuḍa Purāṇa (4th century CE?) is more like the Buddhist king of Hell as we find him in the Buddhist texts. The dead person is taken by the "High Way" and assumes a body formed from the funeral offerings (piṇḍa) and "feels hungry by day and night". The messengers of Yama are now torturers (Cuevas 271).

Is there Hell in the Ṛgveda Veda? 

Accounts of the afterlife in the Ṛgveda are far from unambiguous. Scholars have identified five Ṛgveda passages that might be a reference to hell: 2.29.6, 7.104.3, 9.73.8-9. 10.14.10-11, and 10.152.4 (Stausberg 2000: 219). The most suggestive passage is in sūkta 7.104 which calls on Indra and Soma to destroy an evil sorcerer (yātu) also called demon (rakṣa). In gāthā 3 the poet called on Indra and Soma:
índrāsomā duṣkŕ̥to vavré antár
anārambhaṇé támasi prá vidhyatam |
yáthā nā́taḥ púnar ékaś canódáyat
tád vām astu sáhase manyumác chávaḥ || 7.104.3 ||
O Indra and Soma, the evil doers were hurled into a pit which is beginningless darkness.
Not one returns from there, may your rage overpower them. [My translation]
Understanding this requires us to look at the context (a series of curses wishing harm and ill on an enemy) and the grammar of the sequence vavré antár anārambhaṇé támasi prá vidhyatam. The various translators produce similar translations:
  • Stausberg "... throw them forth the evil doers into the enclosure, into the anchorless darkness."
  • Doniger "... pierce the evil-doers and hurl them into the pit, the bottomless darkness."
  • Griffiths " plunge the wicked in the depth, yea, cast them into darkness that hath no support,"
It seems Stausberg is struggling with the vocab: 'anchorless' as a reading of anārambhaṇa is peculiar. Ārambhaṇa means 'take hold of, seize; beginning, commencement'. As an adjective anārambhaṇa must mean something like 'beginningless', or as we would say "bottomless". Also vavra is a place of hiding or concealment, a cavern, cave or hole (from √vṛ 'to conceal') so enclosure also seems peculiar. Doniger is trying too hard here, she elects to use both meanings of pra√vyadh, i.e. 'pierce' and 'hurl' (293), where 'hurl' seems sufficient. Griffiths seems to grasp the phrase, but his pseudo-Biblical language is anachronistic. If we step through the structure of padas a & b:
índrāsomā duṣkŕ̥to vavré antár anārambhaṇé támasi prá vidhyatam |
The verbal form, prá vidhyata, is a passive past participle. Note that in Vedic the pre-verb is not always directly connected to the root. In Classical Sanskrit this would be pravidhyata. Indra and Soma are addressed using the vocative case. They are being asked to do the action of hurling (pra√vyadh) [verbal form] the patient, i.e. evil doers (duṣkṛta), into (antar) a hole/pit (vivra) which is darkness (tamas). It is ambiguous on the face of it whether it is a pit which is bottomless or the darkness which is beginningless (and presumably endless). However in RV 1.182.6 (below) we find anārambhaṇé támasi and 'pit' substituted by waters (apsu) suggesting that 'beginningless darkness' was intended.

I don't see why any translators might have chosen to refer to vivra with the definite article. Why "the pit"? It makes this seem like a reference to a known entity. Which pit is the text referring to? In fact no such pit exists in the text. It makes a great deal more sense, given that we have no definite referent, to use the indefinite article 'a pit'.

So the poet is simply asking his gods to bury his enemies in a dark bottomless hole so that they cannot return. This perhaps leaves open the possibility that this poet believed in rebirth and he wanted his gods not only to kill his enemies, but to prevent them from being reborn (a more comprehensive curse! He also requests that the gods burn, crush, shatter, scorch, kill, exile, cut down the same enemies. This does not seem to be a reference to Hell, the poet wishes the gods to punish his enemy in the here and now rather than in the afterlife; if anything he wants to deny them an afterlife. The poet is saying "O Lord, smite my enemies." It's a common theme in these ancient tribal scriptures. We find similar curses in the Old Testament of the Bible and the Avestan Hymn to Mithra.

In his discussion Stausberg highlights RV 1.182.6 which uses some of the same terminology:
ávaviddhaṃ taugriyám apsú antár anārambhaṇé támasi práviddham |
cátasro nā́vo jáṭhalasya júṣṭā úd aśvíbhyām iṣitā́ḥ pārayanti || 
Four ships most welcome in the midst of ocean,
Urged by the Asvins, save the son of Tugra,
Him who was cast down headlong in the waters,
Plunged in the thick inevitable darkness. [Griffiths]
However the context is very different. Tugra is rescued after being "cast into the bottomless darkness of the waters" (apsú antár anārambhaṇé támasi práviddham). Our conclusion is the complete opposite of Stausberg's. The two passages are linguistically similar in describing a hole and the deep ocean as bottomless and dark, but there's still no hint of a post-mortem destination.

RV 10.14 is a key sūkta for Yama and also contains some references that have been read as referring to Hell. However they don't mention any of the usual ideas associated with Hell. Indeed the suggested passages end with "grant him good-fortune and health, O King." (rājan svastí cāsmā anamīváṃ ca dhehi) Which doesn't sound much like Hell.

RV 2.29.6 makes a request to several pairs of gods—the twin Ādityas, Varuṇa & Mitra, Indra & Maruts—to be forgiven failings and to be saved the destruction of wolves (nijúro vŕ̥kasya), and from a pit (kartā́d) and from falling (avapada). The later two don't seem to be construed together, the request is phrases as "from a pit" (in the ablative singular). Note that this is a different word for a pit and it has absolutely no context that might relate it to hell.

RV 9.73.8-9 looks more promising. In this sūkta Varuṇa, guardian of the cosmic order, (r̥tásya gopā́) is asked to drive the hated ones, who don't perform the rites, into a pit (ávā́juṣṭān vidhyati karté avratā́n 8d) and those who are incompetent with fall into a pit (átrā kartám áva padāti áprabhuḥ 9d), unlike the wise (dhī́rāś). The word for pit is karta as in RV 2.29. However is the pit anything supernatural here, or is it a pit? 

Finally 10.152.4 In pada b Griffiths reads ádharaṃ gamayā támaḥ as "Send [him] down to nether darkness" but adharaṃ and tamaḥ are not in the same case. If tamaḥ here is a noun, and the verb is √gam 'to go' then (as in the Life of Brian) the verbs of motion take the accusative: tamam. Here tamaḥ is a nominative singular. "Nether Darkness would translate" adharam tamam, but not adharam tamaḥ. If we take the pada as a whole:
yó asmā́m̐ abhidā́sati ádharaṃ gamayā támaḥ  
He who is dark (yo tamaḥ), treating us as inferior (asmā́m̐ abhidā́sati ádharaṃ) should be made to go (gamayā). 
Thus again the relationship to Hell is less than tenuous. And this sums up all of the evidence for Hell in the Ṛgveda. We can be fairly certain that the Ṛgveda has no conception of a afterlife realm of punishment that corresponds to Hell. We need to look more closely at what kind of afterlife the Ṛgveda does know: i.e. the pitṛloka, discovered by Yama, and the devaloka.

Pitṛloka & Devaloka. 

Initially the pitṛloka and the devaloka were more or less on the same level even when they were distinguished. It seems that the devaloka was not initially thought of as an afterlife destination. Humans were not reborn as gods. This may be a Buddhist innovation. Cuevas notes that the pitṛloka came to be demoted in height and status, becoming associated with the antarīkṣa (for the significance of vertical spatial metaphors see Metaphors and Materialism). By the time of the early Upaniṣads the pitṛloka is associated with "the moon, darkness, sacrificial activity and rebirth" whereas the devaloka is associated with "the sun, light, knowledge and immortality" (Cuevas 272). This is particularly seen in the passages regarding the five fire knowledge (pañcāgnividyā) that describe a number of after-life paths and destinations. By contrast going to the devas becomes the first step on a journey out of saṃsāra that culminates in going to Brahman.

click to embiggen

For a culture which sees the performance of ritual as determining one's afterlife destination there appears to be little or no need for a concept of Hell. The Vedas hint at a bad destination for enemies of the Brahmins, but it's not until the world is ethicised that an afterlife which punishes wrong doing is needed. And by punishment I mean something beyond the withholding of paradise from the inept ritualist. How and when Hell becomes part of Vedic cosmology and eschatology is not entirely clear and I have only a few scattered references to work from. There's not much to indicate that one could return to the human realm having been in Hell.

If we do not see hell as an afterlife destination in the Ṛgveda, then the obvious question is when do we see it in Indian literature? This is not a question I can answer yet.

We can now come back to the question of the meaning of niraya/naraka. In seeking to understand the word, such etymology as there is has sought a connection to Hell. However as we see originally Yama's loka was original not an underworld place of suffering at all. Indeed it was a place in the sky where one experienced (presumably joyful) reuniting with one's ancestors. It became the destination for men (nṛ) who performed the correct rituals. As such a name which was a collective adjective based on nṛ i.e. naraka or nāraka would make sense. We could then explain niraya as a dialectical variation. Against this explanation is the lack of any parallels. All the words starting with nir- in PED are derived from the suffix nis-. This fact suggests that niraya and naraka are two unrelated words. My hunch, however, is that they are related.

Hell in Zoroastrianism

Based on ideas first put forward by Michael Witzel I've speculated that the impetus to escape from a once happy rebirth eschatology was also influenced by Iranian (i.e. Zoroastrian) ideas. The vector for these ideas being an influx of Iranian tribes, including the Śākyas, whose culture gave rise to śrāmaṇa religions. Since we do not see Hell in Vedic, it's possible that the idea of Hell came from this same source. In order for this to be true the Vedic speaking people's had to leave Iran before the advent of Zoroastrianism which is difficult to date, but generally placed at about 1000 BCE.

However Hell is barely mentioned in the oldest Zoroastrian scriptures. As the Encyclopedia Iranica (EI) says:
Hell is not explicitly mentioned in the Gathas. There are only allusions made to it, if not in Yasna 31.20, at least in Yasna 46.11, where it is said that the soul and the daēnā of the wicked arriving at the Činwad Bridge (Av. činuuatō pərətu) will be guests in the “house of falsehood” (Av. drūjō dəmānā-), and in Yasna 51.13.The word hell, literally bad existence (Av. daožaŋᵛha-, Pahl. dušox, Pers. duzaḵ) only occurs in the later Avesta. 
When Hell is mentioned it is a place of torture in recompense for bad thoughts, words and deeds. Unfortunately for my conjecture the time-line is not yet clear, but the indications are that Hell developed at around the same time in Iran as it did in India.

The Iranian twin of Yama is a mythic King called Jamšid aka Yima. He is a culture hero, a king who ruled the world in a Golden Age. "Yima is said to be like the sun to look at among men (huuarə.darəsō maṧiiānąm; Yasna 9.4) and his life is immortal and “sun-filled” (xᵛanuuaṇt, Yasna 9.1)," (EI). As with Yama, the Iranian Yima is the son of a solar figure (Skt. Vivasvant, Av. Vīuuaŋᵛhant, “the one who shines far and wide”, and in this aspect he "made the world immortal",. How Yima bequeathed immortality and why humans are no longer immortal are not told in older texts and several versions of the story exist in later texts. Stories which connect Yima to Hell come rather late in the piece.
There are three references in the narratives above to Yima going to Hell: for his sins, in order to close the door to Hell so that death would be kept out, and in order to bring the paymān(ag) [right measure] out of Hell. (EI)
Paymān "is characteristic of Zoroastrian ethics and is discussed at length in the Middle Persian texts" (EI). So while the connection to Hell is not entirely clear, Yama is a figure common to both Indian and Iranian myth, giving him considerable antiquity. And in both mythic systems he is associated with extending the lives of humans: Yama through rebirth, and Yima through immortality. However both meet with a downfall: Yama becomes the ruler of Hell, and Yima sins and is sent to Hell as punishment. That there should be commonality in the earlier versions of the myth is not unexpected since we already know of parallels between the Ṛgveda and the Avesta, but that that developments of the myth should continue to follow parallel paths is intriguing. 

Yama in Buddhist Texts

Yama is mentioned in only a few texts. In an earlier essay on the history of Kamma I wrote:
Consider the Devadūta Sutta (MN 130, M iii.178) which explains how after death a being who has behaved badly might be reborn in hell (niraya); there they will be seized by the guardians of hell (nirayapālā), dragged before King Yama and cross-examined about their evil conduct of body, speech and mind. Unable to account for themselves, they are then condemned to horrific tortures which are graphically described. It is emphasised that "as long as that evil action is not destroyed, he does not die" (na ca tāva kālaṅkaroti yāva na taṃ pāpakammaṃ byantīhoti).
This is one of the most important occurrences. Another slightly different version of the story is found at AN 3.36, showing once again that the Pāḷi Canon is an incompletely merged anthology drawing on multiple retellings of the source material.

At SN 1.49 those who are stingy or hinder alms gathering are said to be reborn in Hell, as an animal or in Yama's realm (Nirayaṃ tiracchānayoniṃ, yamalokaṃ upapajjare), which is interesting. Recall that the departed (preta) where originally on their way to Yama's realm (yamaloka) to live with their ancestors (pitṛ), but the pretas became a kind of being in purgatory. Thus yamaloka here, as distinguished from niraya, might refer to the pretas. Bodhi also concludes this, but we don't know. Buddhaghosa's commentary is silent at this point.

At SN 1.33 we find Yama mentioned in an udāna uttered by a devatā:
Yo dhammaladdhassa dadāti dānaṃ,
Uṭṭhānavīriyādhigatassa jantu;
Atikkamma so vetaraṇiṃ yamassa,
Dibbāni ṭhānāni upeti macco ti.
The one who gives the gift of the received Dharma
Obtained though exertion and devotion
He crosses over Yama's river Vetaraṇī
That mortal one approaches the heavenly regions. 
The river Vetaraṇī is mentioned only one other time in the Suttanipata, Sn 674. It appears to be a river in Hell itself that the evil-doers fall into, and thus not much like the Styx, contra Bodhi in his translations notes on SN (2000: 364-5 n.67).

Finally Yama receives a passing mention: DN 13 (i.246) in a list of Vedic devas. This is not much to go on. Yama is a rāja, who rules over Hell, questions the souls of the dead, and has some messengers. This is broadly speaking the Vedic Yama.

Thus despite his later prominence in Buddhist myth, Yama is actually quite a marginal figure in the Nikāyas. Anālayo notes in his study of the Majjhimanikāya that Yama's role in the Buddhist texts has been reduced from active to passive so as to avoid a conflict with the doctrine of karma (2011: 748 n.303). Most of the later stories and images seem to depend on the Devadūta Sutta. This text was translated into Chinese five separate times (EA 32.4, T 86, T 42, T 43, MA 64) and there are a number of partial parallels ( T 24*, T 25*, T 212.9*, T 741*, DA 30*). The variations are discussed by Anālayo (2011: 747-53). A translation of MĀ 64 can be found in Bingenheimer, Anālayo and Bucknell (2013: 407).


It's worth saying a few words about Māra here, though he deserves his own essay. In contrast to Yama who presides over Naraka, Māra is an unrelated figure apparently emerging from non-Vedic tradition, along with Yakṣas and a goddess of good fortune known as Sirī (Skt. Śrī). The name derives from the causative form of the verb √mṛ 'die'; present verb mṛyate, causative mārayati. Thus māra is literally 'causing to die', or 'killing'. He's also known by the epithet pāpima 'evil one'. Māra is sometimes said to preside or rule over saṃsāra, and one of his biggest concerns is that people will escape saṃsāra. In this sense he stands for the repeated deaths that one must undergo in saṃsāra and all the associated grief. Māra uses the weapons of saṃsāra (desire, aversion, confusion), often in personified forms (his daughters represent desire and his army aversion). However though it might seem obvious to link Māra with Yama, there seems to be no connection between the two in practice. Yama is not evil in the way that Māra is. However Yama is sometimes written of as a personification of death, where he is called Mṛtyu 'Death'.


Ṛgveda texts taken from the metrically restored text by Karen Thomson and Jonathan Slocum. 
Anālayo (2011) A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya. Volume 2 (Studies of Discourses 91 to 152, Conclusion, Abbreviations, References, Appendix). Dharma Drum Publishing Corporation.
Bingenheimer, Marcus. Anālayo & Bucknell, Roderick S. (eds) (2013) The Madhyama Āgama (Middle Length Discourses) Vol. 1. (Taishō Vol. 2, no. 26). Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai America.
Cuevas, Bryan Jaré. (1996) 'Predecessors and Prototypes: Towards a Conceptual History of the Buddhist Antarabhava.' Numen 43(3): 263-302.
Doniger O'Flaherty, Wendy. (1981) The Rig Veda: An Anthology. Penguin
Jurewicz, Joanna. (2008) 'Rebirth eschatology in the Rgveda. In search for roots of transmigration.'  Indologica Taurinensia: The Journal of the International Association of Sanskrit Studies. 34: 183-
Skjaervo, Prods Oktor. (2012) 'Jamšid i. Myth of Jamšid.' Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. XIV, Fasc. 5, pp. 501-522.
Stausberg, Michael (2000). “Hell in Zoroastrian History.” Numen 56: 217-253.

13 February 2015

Harvey's Early Buddhist 'Life Principle' or 'spirit'.

National Geographic
In his book The Selfless Mind, Peter Harvey (1995: §6.5-6.12) makes a persuasive case for an early Buddhist 'life principle' (jīva) in the Pāli texts which is not permanent, but provides the necessary continuity between lives to allow karma to operate. As I read the later Buddhist traditions this jīva was universally repudiated and dropped from eschatological discourses, which has made me reluctant to admit the role implied for jīva in the early texts. This essay will explore this case, offer some criticism based on the texts, and re-examine it from a contemporary point of view. Ultimately I don't find Harvey's case compelling.

Jīva is from the verbal root √jīv 'live' which is cognate with Greek bio, Latin vivere (whence vital), and Old English cwic 'alive' (hence "the quick and the dead"). Jīva is a verbal noun, literally meaning 'living, alive' and it's used across many Indian traditions to mean 'that which causes a being to be alive', i.e. as spirit in the Vitalist sense. Most obviously it is the difference between a living being and a dead one, and this is important in the passages cited in The Selfless Mind.

Harvey is able to cite a number of passages in which the jīva is unchallenged and concludes that this amounts to an endorsement. I think this method is dubious. At the outset we must be cautious about who is consenting to what in these texts. For example if, say, Kumāra-Kassapa apparently accepts the reality of a jīva, does this amount to a Buddhist view? The Buddha is often portrayed taking the Socratic approach of stipulating his opponents beliefs and then introducing other themes, often through questions, which take the discussion in a different direction causing the belief to be either overturned or made irrelevant. Quite often the Buddha contrasts metaphysical theories by drawing attention to aspects of experience. But this absence of argument against an opposing metaphysics does not amount to an endorsement of the view. We should not mistake method for doctrine; or absence of disagreement for an endorsement. 

Harvey focusses on just such an issue: the identity of body (sarīra) and jīva. His first point (§6.5) is that the Mahāli Sutta contains a series of passages which say that a person who can attain any of the jhānas would not even ask the question. Harvey then segues into a discussion of the Sāmaññaphala Sutta passages about the mind-made body (DN i.76-77) from which he concludes
This suggests that one who is proficient at meditation is aware of a kind of life principle in the form of [viññāṇa]* (perhaps with some accompaniments), this being dependent on the mortal physical body.
* Harvey idiosyncratically, and I would say confusingly, translates viññāṇa as "discernment" throughout his book. Emphasis is in the original 
The catch here is that the manomayakāya is never, to my knowledge, equated with jīva across the entire extended literature of Buddhism. Thus it seems that Harvey is here introducing a new idea that does not occur in the Canon, but he is attributing it to the Canon. He reinforces this conclusion by pointing out that some beings with mind-made bodies do not eat solid food, but feed on joy. He leaves out that these 'beings' are in fact a particular species of deva. So the view is Harvey's rather than the suttakāras and it depends on devas being both real and representative. This conflation of manomayakāya and jīva is not justified on textual grounds.

The next piece of evidence Harvey puts forward is the Jain Sūtrakṛtāṇga version of the so-called "snake skin" simile, though he cites only the muñja/reed aspect of it (§6.6). (Compare my citation of the same passage in Manomaya Kāya: Pali Texts) The language surrounding these comments is carefully hedged, but the way Harvey continues, he is clearly convinced that what he says is true. His conviction is partly what makes the section so convincing on first read. The problem here is that we know that historically the Jains did believe in a jīva so we ought not be surprised to find a Jain sūtra discussing jīva. The surprise is that Harvey believes that this may throw light on the Buddhist view of jīva. The lack of a jīva in Buddhism has typically been seen as one of the features that distinguishes the two śrāmaṇa systems. So citing a Jain sūtra here can only confuse the issue. The Jain jīva does nothing at all to establish a Buddhist jīva.

We next move to the Pāyāsi Sutta (DN 23) which portrays a debate between a Prince of Kosala called Pāyāsi (§6.7). The text describes Pāyāsi as having developed an evil ideology (pāpakaṃ diṭṭhigataṃ) of this type:
natthi paro loko, natthi sattā opapātikā, natthi sukaṭakkaṭānaṃ kammānaṃ phalaṃ vipāko 
There is no other world, no reborn beings, and no fruit or result from actions well done or badly done. 
Harvey describes this view as "materialist" though this seems to be a misnomer. Before considering broader issues, we need to comment on the word opapātika. This is an adjectival form from upa√pad with the suffix -ka. The noun form is upapatti meaning 'reborn'. The word is taken to mean 'reborn with no visible cause' presumably on the grounds of usage or commentarial exegesis, and this is the usual translation. But the literal meaning of opapātika would be something like 'rebirth-able'. So sattā opapātikā on face value ought to mean that 'beings who are subject to rebirth', and in Buddhism that rebirth is dependent on ones actions. Thus Pāyāsi is not a materialist per se, his argument is not ontological but eschatological. If we must label the view then it is annihilationist. He doubts the afterlife, rebirth and karma - just as many modern Buddhists do. 

Now Prince Pāyāsi has come up with some enchantingly macabre ways of testing the idea of a jīva. He describes having a man sealed up in a clay pot, baked until dead, and then unsealed. And as the pot is unsealed the mouth is carefully watched to see if anything exits which might be the jīva and nothing is seen. In earlier essays about the manomayakāya I argued that it is always rūpin (possesses form) and thus must be visible. However Harvey uses this passage to argue that the jīva must be invisible. Thus jīva and manomayakāya cannot be the same thing, contra what Harvey has argued previously. Not seeing the jīva escape, Pāyāsi refuses to believe in it, which seems fair enough. As unsavory as his experiments are, Pāyāsi is an early empiricist. He's rather like Dr Duncan MacDougall, who weighed dying patients to see if there was a difference between the living and the dead.

At this point Kumāra-Kassapa (Harvey mistakenly has Mahā-Kassapa) offers a counter-argument. He argues that the princes attendants do not see his jīva entering and leaving his body while he sleeps, so why would he expect to see it entering and leaving a dead man. This is a very poor counter-argument for a life principle. For a start it equates sleep with being dead! Harvey appears to overlook that the life-principle is supposed to leave the sleeping person. If jīva really were a vitalistic life principle then this would be a contradiction. Thus jīva must mean something different here and the passage in fact contradicts Harvey's argument for a life principle.

It is important to note that the Buddha doesn't appear in this sutta. Usually if a monk says something important, the sutta will have the Buddha reinforce it at the end. Here, unusually, this does not happen. So whose views are being asserted here?

In the next section (§6.8), Harvey notices some similarities between this Pāḷi text and passages from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, especially BU 4.4 which is one of the earliest descriptions of rebirth in the Vedic Canon.  Harvey's translation of this passage is idiosyncratic and it's worth consulting the Sanskrit or perhaps Olivelle's translation to see this. For example the verb ut√kram does not mean 'ascend' but 'depart'; and anu-ut√kram similarly means 'to depart or follow after'. Harvey's mistake is a too literal rendering of the etymological meaning. 

It might have been interesting for Harvey to consider the previou section of BU (4.3) since it deals with dreaming. BU 4.3.9 says that a person (puruṣa) can be in one of two places: this world (idam lokam) or the other world (paraloka). But the dreamer stands at the place where the two meet (sandye), he is like, amongst other things, a fish that swims between the two banks of a river. In BU it is this puruṣa (aka ātman) that transmigrates from this world to that world, and the dreamer is in a kind of liminal state between worlds. This leads onto BU 4.4 and the description of rebirth. Here we find another simile that is taken up by later Buddhists (non-Theravādins), i.e. the caterpillar coming to the end of a blade of grass and reaching our to another and pulling itself over. The movement of the ātman to a new body is just the same according to BU. But of course as with the Jain argument, the (well known) Brahmanical belief in a transmigrating ātman is not evidence for a Buddhist jīva. If anything we see the texts being rather scathing about ātman, though we must be cautious here because no view on the ātman is ever put into the mouth of a Brahmin in the Buddhist texts. 

A passage from the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15) uses the same verbs: ut√kram 'departure' and ava√kram 'arrival' to describe the arrival or descent of viññāna into the mothers womb (§6.9). Indeed we've seen this passage in the discussion of gandhabba because it is the same one that is used to justify linking viññāna and gandhabba; and it is used by Harvey and others to argue that it is viññāna that transmigrates, not as an entity (for this would contravene other injunctions) but as a process. Here Harvey equates the process of viññāṇa transmigrating with the jīva. But we've already seen that conflating ideas and words that the Buddhist texts themselves do not is a doubtful methodology. Other Buddhist texts specifically deny that viññāṇa can transmigrate. The reason is simply. Viññāṇa arises in dependence on conditions and ceases when the conditions cease. One of those conditions is a set of functioning sense organs. If we are arguing that viññāṇa can arise independently of the body then we will have another major philosophical problem on the scale of making karma work. And we have seen that all of the major sects of Buddhism rejected the early Buddhist model of karma and substituted their own revisions. 

Invoking other parts of the Pāyāsi/Kassapa debate doesn't help Harvey's argument either (§6.10-11). Kassapa in particular argues that living things are lighter than dead things, just as hot iron is lighter than cold iron. This is simply false - the heat of iron does not affect its weight - even if it might have been accepted in ancient India as a fact. From this section Harvey draws out some key resemblances between the analogies discussed in the Pāyāsi Sutta, and despite the reservations identified harvey concludes (§6.12):
It can thus be seen that the 'life principle' or 'spirit' accepted by the 'early suttas' is 'vitality, heat and [viññāna]', or perhaps [viññāna] and the subtle 'mind-made body'. It consists of conditionally arisen changing processes, which are not identical with the mortal body, nor totally different from it, but partly dependent on it.' (95) 
All the scare quotes are in the original and with good reason. Harvey presumably knows that his conclusion is contra to Theravāda monastic orthodoxy, if not local Theravāda folk beliefs. Rather than arguing that jīva exists with the body as condition (a statement nowhere found in Pāli) most exegetes argue that the question of identity between jīva and sarīra is unanswerable. The inference we usually draw is that this is because the jīva doesn't exist. The Pali texts certainly understand that a dead body and a live body are different. 'Living' in this context is sometimes indicated by the related term jīvata (e.g. SN iv.214; MN iii.107). However where jīvata is used adjectivally, jīva is almost always a substantive noun. Harvey is certainly orthodox to argue that it must be a process, but this is not a point made in Pali, certainly not in the texts that he cites. There is no suggestion, for example that Kumāra-Kassapa understands jīva as anything other than an entity. Certain Pāyāsi believes jīva to be an entity. The texts Harvey cites in support of his idea of a non-substantive jīva all seem to disagree with him, well perhaps not all

One of the examples Harvey gives appears to argue that jīva must be a process, though none of the others do. This is the fire stick simile. An apprentice fire-worshipper is left in charge of the fire with no idea of how a fire is made. Instead of rubbing the fire sticks to rekindle the fire using friction, he tries to get fire out of the sticks by cutting them up with an axe (consistent with the view that things are made up of the four elements). Now, Harvey argues that this means that "the life principle is not a separate part of the person, but is a process which occurs when certain conditions are present." (94) However this simile is not about the jīva at all, but about the paraloka. The conclusion of the section of the sutta is:
Evameva kho tvaṃ, rājañña, bālo abyatto ayoniso paralokaṃ gavesissasi.
Just so, you, Prince, are foolishly, senselessly and unwisely seeking the other world.
Which is to say that this is an argument about trying to understand the other world by analysing this world. Like many dualists Kassapa is saying that a reductionist analysis of this world does not yield information about the other world. Since in most cases early Buddhist texts are reluctant to even discuss dualist views, let alone endorse them, then we have reason to be doubtful about this passage. Whose view is this? Given that it's never attributed to the Buddha, and given that we nowhere else find anything like this view attributed to the Buddha we ought to be cautious in reading this as an orthodox view. In any case Harvey has misinterpreted this passage and it is the only one that evinces support for the position that the jīva is a process rather than an entity. Quite clearly in these texts, as in Jain texts, the jīva is an entity. The Buddhist arguments against such entities are so well known as to need no rehearsing. Such entities are not possible in Buddhist metaphysics. 

I'm persuaded that one can find discussions of a jīva in the suttas. I'm not convinced that there is any argument for a jīva in the early texts. Next Harvey's argument strays into the territory of antarābhava which I have discussed at some length on this blog, so I'll stop here. 


It just goes to show that even argument made at some length and with supporting citations from Pāli cannot be taken on face value. The method used by a scholar making a claim must be scrutinised. Confronted with a counter-intuitive theory we must look for flaws in the logic of the argument, such as unreasonably conflating two ideas that are not explicitly conflated in the texts, such as citing evidence that does not show what it purports to show. I fear that this section of Professor Harvey's otherwise excellent survey of way "self" is used in the texts, suffers from classic confirmation bias. Only evidence supporting the proposition that there is a transmigrating "process" is considered, and no contrary evidence is cited.

The texts clearly and consistently speak of jīva as an entity, rather than a process and it is in this very idea that the roots of the Buddhist rejection of jīva lie. Of course a transmigrating "process" would rescue Buddhist karma & rebirth doctrines from inconsistency and indeed incoherence and thus we can see the attractiveness of such a belief. Sadly for this theory, what we lack is any explicit reference to the jīva as dependently arisen that might show that this is something Buddhists believed, rather than a clever, modern way to avoid the problems inherent in rebirth.

It's true, of course, that most Buddhists are Vitalists, almost by necessity since Buddhist morality depends on it. I've explored this at some length in a series of essays on Vitalism. And there are plenty of texts which, for example, seem to show a personal continuity between lives, even though a strict reading of Buddhist metaphysics elsewhere denies the very possibility. I've explored this fundamental contradiction in my essay Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics. But there is no sign that they explicitly adopted a jīva to try to resolve this problem. Continuity seems to be a pragmatic device for teaching morality rather than a core belief.