Showing posts with label Brahmins. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brahmins. Show all posts

27 February 2015

Rebirth in the Ṛgveda

Most modern discussions of the afterlife in the Vedas say that rebirth/reincarnation is not found in the Ṛgveda. Conventionally speaking, the first mention of rebirth in India literature is thought to be in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (4.4). This text was composed somewhat before Buddhism and probably in or near the kingdom of Kosala (within reach of the śrāmaṇa religions). The idea of karma in relation to rebirth is introduced by a king (kṣatriya) and many scholars take this to mean that the Brahmins adopted rebirth from a śrāmaṇa group.

Joanna Jurewicz has shown that despite the conventional understanding that there is evidence for belief in rebirth in the Ṛgveda. This essay will walk through her discovery and comment on the relevance for Buddhist rebirth. Jurewicz's discovery begins with by revisiting a well known passage in the Ṛgveda. In RV 10.16.5 we find this passage. I cite Wendy Doniger's translation to show the conventional understanding of this stanza.
áva sr̥ja púnar agne pitŕ̥bhyo yás ta ā́hutaś cárati svadhā́bhiḥ |
ā́yur vásāna úpa vetu śéṣaḥ sáṃ gachatāṃ tanúvā jātavedaḥ ||
Set him free again to go to the fathers, Agni, when he has been offered as an oblation in you and wanders with the sacrificial drink. Let him reach his own descendent, dressing himself in a life-span. O knower of creatures, let him join with a body. 
Here the dead person is treated like a sacrificial offering (āhuta) to the fire (agni). Agni transforms offerings into smoke and wafts them up to the sky where the devas live. Jurewicz makes the point that in Vedic eschatology the fathers or ancestors also dwell in the sky or heaven.

Jurewicz points about that pitṛbhyaḥ can either be dative and ablative and that all translators to date have read it as dative (to the fathers). But really there is no apriori reason not to read it as ablative (from the fathers).

Jurewicz analyses the verb ava√sṛj according to the principles of George Lakoff. She points out that the concrete meaning is 'untie' as in 'untie a bound captive, or a tethered animal'. Abstractly this can refer to forgiveness for wrongdoing. In a ritual context untying the animal means to sacrifice it, as the victim is bound to a post before being killed. The verb ava√sṛj can also refer to releasing an arrow. Jurewicz speculates that the bow-string might be seen as binding the arrow which is then release from captivity when the archer looses it (though 'to [let] loose' an arrow is also a metaphor in English and I think refers to the right hand hold (back) the bow-string and the arrow). Another sense of ava√sṛj is the releasing of the waters by Indra (RV 10.133.2, 8.32.25). In this usage the preverb ava takes its most obvious meaning of 'down'. When Indra releases the waters, rain pours down and rivers flow down from the mountains (an image also found in the Pāḷi Canon). Thus there is a strong argument for emphasising the reading of "release him down from the fathers again."

However we read pitṛbhyaḥ it raises the question of why the text asks Agni to do this again (punar). "Send him to the the fathers again" or "release him from the fathers again." One obvious reading is that the poet conceives of this happening repeatedly, i.e. that he believes that one is born, dies and goes to the ancestors repeatedly.

The other padas of the verse support this reading. Although śeṣa  (literally 'remainder') can mean what is left after the fire has burned out, in the Ṛgveda it definitely also means 'offspring'. In addition āyuḥ refers to a human life. In her consideration of the word svadhā, which qualifies the movement of the dead (ta ā́hutaś cárati svadhā́bhiḥ "The sacrificial offering proceeds with svadhā"), Jurewicz says "Most scholars in their translations choose words denoting will, right or autonomy." Doniger, by contrast relates svadhā to soma, the drug laced liquid imbibed as a stimulant and ladled onto the fire as an offering. However, Jurewicz argues that the main idea being conveyed here is 'contradictoriness'. This captures the sense that the unmoving dead body is none-the-less able to travel (as smoke from the fire) up to heaven.

Jurewicz proposes the alternate reading of the verse:
"Release him to his fathers and again down from them, who, poured into you, travels
according to his will. Let him who wears life come to his offspring. Let him join his
body, Jatavedas!"
On this reading the verse is quite clearly a reference to rebirth. Jurewicz's sensitivity to the nuances of the language allow us to see this verse in a new light. This does not exclude the other readings seen by other translators. Language does this. It covers a wide range of possibilities that are apparent to the community of speakers and which are often lost in translation. What we assume about the context may influence how we make editorial and translation decisions.

In my next essay I will explore the role of Yama in discovering the pitṛloka. Yama had to find his way there, and since the way there is the correct performance of the śrāddha or funeral rights, then this suggests a memory of the adoption of rebirth eschatology, probably in India, since Vedic speakers do not share this idea with anyone other Indo-Europeans.

The discovery of rebirth this early in Indian history is important. Because it means that if Vedic speakers did adopt rebirth from outside their immediate cultural sphere, as seems likely, they did so very early in their time in India. A broad consensus places the composition of the Ṛgveda in the time period 1500-1200 BCE. To my knowledge no one has suggested that śrāmaṇa culture can be found in the Vedic āryavarta or homeland in the Western Ganges Valley, nor is there evidence for śrāmaṇa culture at this early stage. It also suggests that some kind of rebirth eschatology was widespread in the Ganges Valley when the Vedic speakers arrived. And what was introduced in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad was not rebirth per se, but the linking of rebirth to good (puṇya) and evil (pāpa) actions.

To my mind this is a blow to those who argue that rebirth was foreign to the Buddha and interpolated into Buddhism. An interesting parallel is the Brahmanical social institution of varṇa or class, that develops into jati or the system of caste. Buddhist texts often treat varṇa as foreign. There are many arguments about how and to whom it might apply. Brahmins insistence on being the best caste are regularly undermined. There are actual arguments about caste. No such arguments occur with rebirth as the focus. Similarly there are discussions about the role of Brahmā in the world. But rebirth is simply a background idea that is never challenged. There are those who explicitly reject any kind of afterlife (e.g. Prince Pāyāsi) but they are treated as misguided and untrustworthy.

When we discuss the appearance of Indic languages and culture in India we used to speak of invasions. The invasion theory has long been untenable. Most likely small, related bands of Indic speakers—Vedic and related dialects—began moving into the sub-continent and were assimilated by the existing population, leaving little genetic trace. In the language of the Ṛgveda we see many loan words from the Dravidian language family and quite a few from Munda (or Austro-Asiatic), structured in such a way as to suggest that Munda speaking people were met first. See Witzel (1999). This trickle of incomers from Iran and now Afghanistan has continued to the present, sometimes overshadowed by invasions proper (Alexander of Macedonia, the Kushans, etc). Rebirth like many features of Indian languages appears to be a regional feature of the Indian subcontinent. A few relics of the migration have been preserved, such as the retentions of the scheme of assessing morality by actions of the body, speech and mind, a scheme which comes from Zoroastrianism. 



Jurewicz, Joanna. The Ṛgveda, ‘small scale’ societies and rebirth eschatology. Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies.

Witzel, Michael. (1999) Substrate Languages in Old Indo-Aryan (Rgvedic, Middle and Late Vedic).
Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies. 5(1): 1-67.

15 June 2012

How Buddhist Rebirth Changes Over Time

ONE OF THE FACTS about the foundation texts of Buddhism that most people don't seem to have taken in is that rebirth is an idea with a history. The idea did not spring into being fully formed. And what's more we can discern this history in the Pāli texts themselves. It has been traced in detail by Gananath Obeyesekere in his book Imagining Karma. In this post I want to review the development of rebirth from its primitive form to the full blown received version, basing myself on Obeyesekere, along with some observations and diagrams of my own. The received tradition tends to obscure the variations in the texts, but they can be (at least partially) reconstructed. So this is a kind of archaeology in the spirit of Foucault. A caveat here is that we don't know the absolute chronology of these changes, we only know that they were all preserved, somewhat unevenly, with the fixing of the Canon.

The most basic form of rebirth eschatology is binary. It involves 'this world' (ayaṃ loko) and 'the other world' (paro loko) a way of referring to rebirth that one finds scattered throughout the Canon, and which may have been retained as an idiom long after the binary model had been augmented. In this simple model of rebirth one lives on earth; then after death one rises up to the other world (always up), where one lives for a long time; then one falls back to be reborn on earth again. For example in M 49 the movement is described by this sequence of verbs: jāyati jīyati mīyati cavati upapajjati--being born, living, dying, falling, being rebirth. Rebirth is automatic, and human.

Brahmins also began with a binary cyclic eschatology. Indeed it seems as though rebirth eschatologies were indigenous, or at least endemic, in India. The Brahmin ancestors (or fathers) live in the other world. This cycle is what is referred to as saṃsāra - which means 'going through; course; passage' (from saṃ- 'with, together, complete' √sṛ 'flow, run, move'). The cycle is believed to be endless and beginningless. At this early stage rebirth is not problematised; its just a description of the how the world is. However for the Brahmins going to the next world, like all significant life moments, required the performance of certain rituals. There is no sense of morality being a factor here, but the need for the rituals to be performed correctly had a similar effect. The arrival of morality is the next thing to discuss.

What morality does to any afterlife is divide it. If one has lived well the other world is a place of reward, and if one has not lived well the other world is a place of punishment. In Buddhist texts we find the distinction in the pair of terms 'good destination' (sugati) and and 'bad destination' (duggati. Skt durgati). Another pair of terms are 'heaven' sagga (Skt svarga) and 'hell' (niraya). The word svarga 'shining place' has a long history in the Vedic tradition. It was where the gods lived, but also where the ancestors lived, so in simple terms the other world was svarga. It was situated beyond the sky. However initially there is no clear reference to hell in Indian texts, it's not really until Buddhism that hell plays any definite role in Indian cosmology or eschatology. The word niraya means 'going down'. Because the idea of a subterranean hell appears to be absent from earlier Vedic texts, some scholars have speculated that the idea of hell comes Zoroastrianism (via the Iranian Śākya tribe - see Possible History). Like heaven, the early hell is a place where you go to live out the consequences of the actions done in life, but not a place where one does actions with consequences. We see this explicitly in the Devadūta Sutta (M 130) where one is tortured in hell, but does not die, and therefore cannot be reborn elsewhere until the wicked actions have exhausted their force. Actions carried out in hell appear to have no bearing on this fate.

Note that liberation is outside of space and time and described as "dhuva, sassata, nicca, etc." by both Brahmins and Buddhists. Because the Brahmanical diagram would look just the same I say the two are topologically identical.

At the same time a third option appears, which is liberation (mokṣa, vimokṣa) from going around the cycles. The idea is first seen in literature in the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU). By re-jigging the dates of the ancient India texts and placing BU after the Buddhist texts, Johannes Bronkhorst manages to argue that this idea must have come from the śramaṇa milieu. However it's doubtful whether his revised chronology will stand up to scrutiny, and I know of no other scholar who has adopted it yet.  Even so, my work on the Iranian origins of the Śākya tribe makes it seem possible that the idea of liberation (i.e. a single destination eschatology) might have been introduced into both milieus around the same time (ca. 850 BCE) from Iran; leaving the current consensus on chronology intact. However it arose, the option of liberation from saṃsāra becomes the major preoccupation of Indian religion from about the middle of the first millennium BCE down to the present. And given how it spread in various guises it must be seen as one of the most influential ideas in the whole history of ideas.

It seems as though these early versions of rebirth eschatology are similar to Brahmanical views, but they might have been more widespread. Rebirth eschatologies are not common amongst the Indo-European speaking peoples (with some ancient Greeks as a debatable exception) but they are ubiquitous in India. So, like linguistic features such as retroflex consonants, rebirth might have been a regional feature. In any case what happens next is the incorporation of some explicitly Brahmanical elements into the Buddhist model. These are not taken on their own terms, in fact presented in distorted, rather mocking ways.

For the Brahmins we meet in the Canon going to Brahmā's realm (brahmaloka) is synonymous with mokṣa or liberation from saṃsāra. Richard Gombrich has argued that the Buddha used brahmasahāvyatā as a synonym for nibbāṇa; which in turn explains the brahmavihāra (literally "dwelling with/on/like God") meditations. Buddhists denied Brahmanical soteriology, and did two things: they brought Brahmā's realm back into saṃsāra, but placed it over the god realm (devaloka) creating a new refined level of saṃsāra (also called ārupaloka); and they multiplied the Creator God into a whole class of very refined beings called Brahmās (plural). On one hand the Brahmās are the highest beings in saṃsāra and people in the texts are very impressed when one of them visits the Buddha, and one of them, Brahmasahampati, is responsible for convincing the Buddha to teach; and on the other hand they are depicted as being deluded about their own nature, trapped in saṃsāra and therefore subject to death. The other thing that happens at this stage is the separation of the spirits of the dead from the gods. The word peta (Skt. preta) has two possible etymologies one which derives it from the word for father (pitṛ) and the other which derives it (as an action noun) from a verb meaning 'gone before' or 'departed' (pra-√ī). In any case this common word for the spirits of the dead who are in the other world becomes a pejorative. Perhaps because the Brahmins made sacrifices to the gods and to their fathers, in Buddhism the preta came to stand for a class of ghosts who were constantly hungry, but unable to ever satisfy that hunger.

At the same time, or perhaps a little later, the idea arose that one could be reborn as an animal. This idea is first seen in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad where the fate of those who do not carry out the rituals is to be reborn as an invertebrate. So at first it appears to be a somewhat chauvinistic Brahmanical idea, but it catches on and is incorporated into the Buddhist eschatology.

Click to enlarge
The final stage involves the emergence of the full-blown version of the Buddhist cosmology with the brahmaloka, devaloka and hell realms being divided into many different layers, and the layers of the first two being related to states of meditation. The devas and their counterparts the asuras undergo their separation and the asuras are sometimes (but not always) given their own realm. In some older parts of the Ṛgveda the two terms deva and asura are synonyms. Varuṇa for example is referred to as both deva and asura. However the contest between them required a winner and loser, and the asuras lost. (In Iran they won and the devas are seen as demons.) Some remnants of the early stories are preserved, often with little alteration, in the sakkasaṃyutta of the Saṃyutta Nikāya (the 11th chapter, beginning on p.317 in Bodhi's translation). For the purposes of diagramming the brahmaloka and devaloka are often treated as aspects of a single domain, though Brahmā is never referred to a deva. This gives us the traditional six domains of rebirth: human, deva, asura, preta, hell, animal, as seen, for example on the bhavacakra or 'Wheel of Becoming'. It is possible to go to any realm from any other realm, but liberation is only possible from the human realm.

One of the major changes from beginning to end is the likelihood of a human birth. Initially it is 100% certain. Even in a morality influenced eschatology one always returns to this world as a human being eventually. However, by the end of the process the likelihood of being born human is vanishingly small. The chance compares unfavourably with the probability that a blind turtle raising its head from the great ocean just once a century might put its head through the hole in a plough harness (yoke not yolk!) which is floating about at random on the ocean. While this is not impossible, the chances are vanishingly small. If we take this on face value we have almost 0% chance of being born human. Related to this is the possibility of multiple rebirths in hell or heaven, particularly the former. This suggests a growing concern over the waywardness of human beings and a greater desire to curb behaviour with the threat of exile from humanity in the afterlife. In other words it looks like a hint that rebirth theory changed in response to social change. This should not be surprising as a huge number of Vinaya rules, including the pāṭimokkha ceremony itself, are made in response to public pressure.

In this essay I've been looking at the development of the idea of Rebirth in the Pāli texts. Given the way that kamma changed after the Pāli Canon was closed, it is only reasonable to assume that ideas about rebirth also continued to change. I will briefly mention one other major development in rebirth theory which was the invention of the so-called Pure Land: a parallel universe with a living Buddha. The Pure Land was not simply another level in this universe, not another level of heaven, but an entirely separate and complete universe (though usually lacking the durgati). The parallel universe was not invented because the ancients had insights into the nature of the multiverse or M Theory, it was a theological necessity for those who had begun to believe that the presence a living Buddha was necessary for liberation (the same theological anxiety can be see in the Suvarṇabhāsottama Sūtra; and in Peter Masefield's Theravāda oriented book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism.). The Pure Land is a place where liberation is guaranteed by the constant living presence of a Buddha (I would argue that at this point the Buddha has become a god, theos; and that the term theology is entirely appropriate). The resident Buddha in fact creates this parallel universe through their practice of the perfections, emphasising the importance of hard work. Fantastically rococo in many other respects, each Pure Land is entirely flat for some reason. I mentioned Pure lands last week, and it is a fascinating area, but for another essay. Those interesting in how Pure Land theory developed should read this article by one of my favourite authors:
Nattier, Jan. (2000) 'The Realm of Aksobhya: A Missing Piece in the History of Pure Land Buddhism.' Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies. 23 (1): 71–102. Online:
Those who oppose the idea that rebirth is implausible often fall back on simplistic arguments like: rebirth has always been accepted by Buddhists, it's been analysed and accepted as true many times. However this argument seldom takes in the subtleties of the history of the idea. Rebirth clearly changes during the period between of the inception of Buddhism and the closing of the canon. Several different versions of rebirth are, as it were, trapped in the amber of the Pāli texts. But rebirth continued to change. The received tradition, as is usual, never acknowledges the variety of the models, nor the subtle contradictions in the collection of texts. Received traditions are all about presenting an internally coherent narrative, and ironing out difficulties. So inconsistent aspects of the textual tradition are reinterpreted or simply bracketed out. This is not a new process. And confirmation bias is not a new problem.

Contrarily those who seek to deny that rebirth was part of the original teaching don't have a leg to stand on. Rebirth is prominent in the older hagiographical accounts like the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta, and in the older parts of the Sutta Nipāta. Rebirth is quite obviously an important part of Buddhism in the earliest records we have. The idea that rebirth is somehow in the background, or was added later, is insupportable based on current evidence. That rebirth no longer seems plausible is an entirely different proposition. And one that creates a dilemma that I have no wish to underplay. We have yet to really work out the implications of this news, though it is the news. Understanding that our doctrines have always been quite changeable and responsive to social change, seems to me to be an important factor in loosening our grip on traditional doctrines with a view to letting them go. Everything changes. Resisting changes causes suffering. The only way forward for Buddhism is, well, forward.


05 November 2010

Pāli Texts as Historical Sources

monks from central AsiaTRYING TO USE THE PĀLI CANON as an historical source presents many challenges. An important thread that I'd like to mention, but not go into this time, is the existence and understanding of physical - archaeological and epigraphical - evidence. Greg Schopen in particular has pointed to the discrepancies in the stories told by physical and textual evidence; and the incompleteness of any historical account which ignores the physical evidence (which at last count includes about 95% of Buddhist historiography). That said I want to look at a particular problem related to early Buddhist texts.

I have been researching the way that Brahmins are characterised in the suttas because I think recent discoveries make it worth looking at them again. It is interesting for instance to find that no Brahmin ever mentions ātman, nor equates ātman and brahman; and no belief in ātman is ever credited to a Brahmin; though lots of them seem to follow a cult of Brahmā. This is surprising given the received teaching that the Buddha taught anatta as a direct response to Brahmanical religious ideas. Here I want to show that the way that Brahmins are presented in the canon is more complex than Buddhists usually allow.

Esukārā Sutta (MN 96, M ii.180)
Tatridaṃ, bho gotama, brāhmaṇā brāhmaṇassa sandhanaṃ paññapenti bhikkhācariyaṃ; bhikkhācariyañca pana brāhmaṇo sandhanaṃ atimaññamāno akiccakārī hoti gopova adinnaṃ ādiyamāno'ti

Here, Mr Gotama, the Brahmins declare that the wealth (sandha) of the Brahmin, is wandering for alms (bhikkhācariyaṃ); and a Brahmin who neglects wandering for alms, is not doing their duty: they are [like] a guard taking the not given.
Subha Sutta (MN 99, M ii.197)
brāhmaṇā, bho gotama, evamāhaṃsu: gahaṭṭho ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalaṃ, na pabbajito ārādhako hoti ñāyaṃ dhammaṃ kusalan'ti.

Brahmins speak thus Mr Gotama: "the householder is accomplished in the correct manner, the dhamma which is wholesome. The gone-forth (pabbajito) is not accomplished in the correct manner, in the dhamma which is wholesome".
These two passages characterise Brahmins in diametrically opposed terms. The context for both of these statements is a conversation between a Brahmin and the Buddha on the appropriateness of traditional Brahmin values: brahmaṇa here is not being used as a metaphor for the ideal Buddhist. Both discussions occur in Anāthapiṇḍika's park. Esukārī is concerned with class and status, while Subha is concerned with the best lifestyle for a Brahmin. Esukārī uses a term which I had not encountered before: bhikkhācariya. Clearly this is related to the familiar term bhikkhu. Bhikkhā means 'to beg, or to make one's living by begging'; and cariya literally means 'walking', or figuratively 'behaving or to make one's way'. This is the lifestyle the original Buddhist monks adopted before settling into monasteries. But, according to Subha, it is precisely the wrong way to be a good Brahmin.

Subha expands his description of a good Brahmin with a list of five qualities (dhamme): truth, asceticism, celibacy, study, and generosity (sacca, tapa, brahmacariya, ajjhena, cāga). The Buddha's subsequent critique of him is one that is used frequently, which is that no Brahmin living or dead has ever known for themselves the truth of their pronouncements. They are just words; the blind leading the blind. This approach is epitomised by the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13). I wonder how many Buddhists look at this text and have secret doubts about the path they extol, but have never personally witnessed? How can I authentically stand up declare nibbāṇa as the goal, when I have no experience of it?

There are a number of ways to look at this text-historical problem. Firstly we must consider the possibility that the Pāli texts contain no useful historical information, that they are just stories made up once Buddhism became established (which may not have been until much later than we usually think). In this view contradictions are meaningless or at best represent confusion on the part of the authors. This approach gets us nowhere. We know that not long after the time period the texts purport to be from there is definite physical evidence of a thriving Buddhist community. There is a history of Buddhism, and clearly Buddhist culture evolved over time. Being unprepared to simply give up, I think we must reject this position and proceed, though with caution.

We might take the less extreme position that the Pāli canon only tells us about the prejudices of the early Buddhists. This we must take more seriously. Clearly there is no attempt to be fair in portraying rival religious practitioners in Buddhist texts. There is quite a lot of invective against people who are ito bahiddhā 'outside the teaching'; just as other the texts of other religions seldom mention Buddhists in a positive light, and parody our beliefs. But amongst the early texts are insults directed at Buddhists by others. Unflattering descriptions of Buddhists are quite unlikely to have been made up ex-nihilo by Buddhists, and likely reflect actual criticisms, actual dialogues. But how far does the Buddhist distortion of what they write about extend? Are lay villagers or kings, for instance, portrayed equally poorly by Buddhist monks?

With these last questions in mind I think we can take one more step and say that the texts, while largely filled with Buddhist rhetoric, do give us glimpses of history. There is a big problem in deciding what time period the texts represent. Until we get more evidence this is an insurmountable problem. I do not agree with those who only accept the physical evidence, which suggests that the Canon may date from the 4th century AD, because I do accept that the texts themselves can tell us things. Surely for instance King Asoka would have been mentioned if he pre-dated the texts; though some use the same argument to say that if the Pāli canon existed that Asoka would surely have mentioned it. My view is that the Pāli texts were probably composed and developed over several centuries starting during the Buddha's lifetime which was in the 5th or 4th century BCE. They were probably collated at some later, as yet undetermined date, mostly like in stages so that the nikāyas represent originally distinct collections. The existence of three and four different versions of some stories, distributed through the nikāyas, with major and minor differences, suggests to me a number of parallel lineages which persisted separately for some time before being collected together.

There is no need to give a straw man such complexity, so it seems to me plausible that Brahmins did indeed experience the kinds of conflict I have highlighted above. On the one hand there was a conventional, conservative streak to Brahmin society which saw duty and family as central; while on the other there were those who saw leaving home as necessary. On the whole the Buddha clearly considered the latter a better option - he was in the jargon of our time 'anti-family' [1]. However in this discussion with Subha he makes it clear that the lifestyle is less important than the practice of the Dhamma - echoing Sangharakshita's oft quoted (and oft misunderstood) aphorism:

Commitment is primary; lifestyle is secondary.

Commitment is more important than lifestyle, but lifestyle is not unimportant. In any case this conflict between conservative and progressive forces amongst Brahmins may come as no surprise. We have evidence from Vedic sources of these changes. Some scholars have spoken of the internalisation or interiorisation of the sacrifice, that is the move to perform the sacrifice in imagination or as a meditation. Some of these ideas are expressed in the so-called āranyka or forest texts. These texts post-date the Vedas by some centuries, but predate Buddhism by a similar time span. Some parts of the Brahmin community embraced this change, while others resisted. Although there seems to be some ambiguity, it is likely that the jaṭila or 'matted hair' practitioners were Brahmins. I haven't yet found a Canonical text which makes this explicit, though in one the jaṭila is the follower of a Brahmin. The name often occurs in lists: ājivikā nigaṇṭha jaṭilā paribbājakā (c.f PED s.v. jaṭila; e.g. S i.77; see: How to Spot an Arahant) so we know they were not Jain, or Ājivika. The word jaṭila doesn't seem to appear in the Ṛgveda or the Atharvaveda, but does occur in the Mahābhārata.

Signe Cohen has suggested that the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BĀU) reflects a conflict between sages associated with the Yajurveda, in particular Yajñavalkya, and sages from other lineages particularly those associated with the Ṛgveda, from the point of view of YV sages.[2] Johannes Bronkhorst has argued that BĀU (along with other early Upaniṣads) shows Brahmins in the process of adopting ideas which originate amongst the samaṇa communities of North-Eastern India, the area he calls Greater Magadha. [3] Note that though we have some evidence of familiarity with Vedic ideas in Buddhist texts, that the important figure of Yajñavalkya is entirely absent. This evidence from non-Buddhist sources reinforces the view that the Pāli texts do record an historical conflict, though perhaps from some distance.

Brahmins themselves make up a large number of converts - both Esukārī and Subha make a formal conversion, though this could be a rhetorical device (one that was to become increasingly popular in Buddhist texts). We would expect some familiarity with Brahmanical culture and religion from a community with a substantial Brahmin membership. The fact that only more peripheral themes of the Upaniṣads and not the central themes are found in the Pāli texts is all the more difficult to understand in this light. Perhaps it suggests that converts came from the conservative rather than the progressive faction?

My view is that with many caveats, we can look at history through the lens of the Pāli texts, and that to some extent they tell us about the time of the Buddha, or at least that time and some centuries afterwards. In a short essay there is not time to deal adequately with the caveats, but I have at least made mention of the main ones. My conclusion is no doubt influenced by being Buddhist, and therefore being drawn to see the Buddha as an historical figure, rather than a legend. Though of course many legendary figures are based on real people. However it is important to note that any historical conclusions are by nature provisional and tentative. As a Buddhist I consciously (and happily) act as though the Buddha lived and taught; as a scholar I am required to be more cautious and doubtful. There is a definite tension.

For a more in-depth look at historical issues in texts this article is very illuminating:
Walters, Jonathan S. "Suttas as history: four approaches to the sermon on the noble quest (ariyapariyesana-sutta)." History of Religions 38(3) Feb 1999: p.247-284.

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  1. Jesus was also quite anti-family. He is reported as saying, for example: "For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Matt. 10:35); and "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:26)
  2. Cohen, Signe. Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill, 2008.
  3. Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.

image: wikimedia.

27 August 2010

A Pāli Pun

In the Aggañña Sutta (DN 27.22) we find some interesting material on the Buddhist attitude to class prejudice. [1] We need to be clear that this not an objective historical record; it is a document which is meant to convince us of a particular view, or perhaps persuade against one. However, the fact that the Pāli texts recall the kinds of insults that Brahmins aimed at Buddhists suggests that there is some veracity in the texts, since they would probably not make up insults for themselves, nor preserve them. Some Brahmins saw the samaṇa as having taken on the status of śudra - the lowest of the four classes, though not the lowest level of Indian society, since one could be outcast. Note that 'Brahmin' is an Anglicisation of the Sanskrit brāhmaṇa usually adopted to avoid confusion with the texts of the same name. Here a former Brahmin called Vāseṭṭha who has converted to Buddhism recounts the kinds of insults he receives from Brahmins:

brāhmaṇova seṭṭho vaṇṇo, hīno añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇova sukko vaṇṇo, kaṇho añño vaṇṇo. Brāhmaṇāva sujjhanti, no abrāhmaṇā. Brāhmaṇāva brahmuno puttā orasā mukhato jātā brahmajā brahmanimmitā brahmadāyādā. Te tumhe seṭṭhaṃ vaṇṇaṃ hitvā hīnamattha vaṇṇaṃ ajjhupagatā, yadidaṃ muṇḍake samaṇake ibbhe kaṇhe bandhupādāpacce.

Brahmins are the best class, the other class is defective (hīna). Brahmins are the pure [white] class, the other is impure [black]. Brahmins are the offspring of Brahmā's mouth, born from Brahmā, created by Brahmā, the kin of Brahmā. Having deserted the best class you have accepted the class that fails to measure up, with these baldy, petit-ascetic, menials, blacks, offspring of Brahmā’s feet! [DN 27.3, D iii.81]
Note the use of hīna in this context to describe the śudra class, and then hīnamattha which I've rendered 'fails to measure up' and does literally mean 'lacking a full measure'. The word for both 'pure' and 'white' is sukka; while the word for 'impure' and 'black' is kaṇha. The insults muṇḍaka 'bald' and samaṇaka 'ascetic' are in a diminutive form that is hard to capture in English - elsewhere they have been rendered "shaveling little ascetics". The last three terms (which can also be read as "menial, black offspring...") are often used of śudras. Indeed, the reference to "Brahmā's feet" is an allusion to Ṛgveda 10.90 The Puruṣa Sūkta. [2] However, I think the idea would have been a cliché (or, indeed, an insult) by the Buddha's day, so it doesn't necessarily suggest familiarity with the Ṛgveda, itself. These are insults that only a Brahmin could use. In looking for contemporary parallels I suggest that the language of white racist abuse is on a par with the passage above. However, projecting contemporary attitudes and understandings backward onto the texts is an uncertain enterprise, at best.

The Buddhist response in the Aggañña Sutta is a lengthy satire on Brahmanical cosmogony and views on the origins of the four classes that employs a series of puns. The funniest one is at DN 27.22 where the Buddha remarks that: ‘They don’t meditate’ (ajhāyaka) is the meaning of ‘brahmin student’ (ajjhāyaka).

However, I want now to focus on the first of the puns in this section. It is less obvious, less amusing, but offers some interesting reflections on the history of Budddhism.
Pāpake akusale dhamme bāhentīti kho, vāseṭṭha, ‘brāhmaṇā, brāhmaṇā’ tveva paṭhamaṃ akkharaṃ upanibbattaṃ. [D iii.93-4]
They ward off evil unwholesome things, Vāseṭṭha, [hence] they are ‘Brahmins’. This is the first pun produced.
The word akkharaṃ literally means 'constant', but also 'letter, sound'. Hence, it is used as the name of the Vedic science of phonology - the sounds of the letters being the constants of language and having a greater significance, even at an early date, than we assign to our letters. It is only a guess, but I think that it suggests 'pun' here - a play on words based on similar sounds. This makes more sense in view of the following discussion.

At first glance there is no pun in the passage quoted. However, brāhmaṇa is a Sanskrit form. In Pāli, consonant clusters like 'br' get resolved in various ways; e.g., the Sanskrit term śramaṇa becomes samaṇa in Pāli. This suggests that the form of our word should be bāhmaṇa and, indeed, Richard Gombrich notes that this form is found in some of Asoka's edicts. [3]

In his work An Outline of Meters in the Pāḷi Canon Ānandajoti notes that the conjunct br in brāhmaṇa regularly fails to “make position”; i.e., it fails to cause the preceding syllable to be metrically heavy. However, it does regularly make position medially. This suggests that brā was frequently treated as , at least for the purposes of meter.

If bāhmaṇa (possibly bāhmana) was the form, then we do have a pun with bāhenti, 'they ward off'. [4] This kind of sound alike etymology is called nirutti (S. nirukti) and relies on verbal roots having phonetic similarity. [6] The verb bāheti is said by PED to be a causative from bahati or a denominative perhaps related to Sanskrit bahis 'outward', which is also the opinion of Edgerton in BHSD. The root of which is obscure. Though John Brough thinks it unlikely [5], the root may be √vah 'carry' - there is a regular confusion of 'b' and 'v' in Indic languages [see note 4]. This idea that Brahmins have avoided or warded off evil is consistent with Brahmins claiming to be sukka - pure/white - but it also reflects the Buddhist notion that a Brahmin is a Brahmin because of their conduct, not because of their birth.

There are a number of texts in Pāli, Sanskrit and Gāndhārī which make use of this same pun - I'll highlight the key terms in italics, and add hyphens to compounds to help clarify the connection. At MN 39.24 (M i.280) we find:
Kathañca, bhikkhave, bhikkhu brāhmaṇo hoti? Bāhitāssa honti pāpakā akusalā dhammā...
And how is a bhikkhu a brāhmaṇa? They have warded off evil unskilful mental states…
Again, in the Dhammapada, verse 388:
bāhita-pāpo’ti brāhmaṇo, samacariyā samaṇo’ti vuccati
pabbājaya attano malaṃ, tasmā pabbajito’ti vuccati.

Brahmin means ‘evil put aside’, we call the calmly living ‘samaṇa’.
Putting aside his own impurity, he is called ‘gone forth’.
We have several versions of the Dhammapada. In the Gāndhārī language version of the Dharmapada [7] the parallel verse (DhpG 1.16) runs:

brahetva pavaṇi brammaṇo
samaïrya śramaṇo di vucadi
I refrain from attempting to translate, but these words are not so different from the Pāli (pavaṇi = pāpa). The 'r' in brahetva is probably an anomaly, since it is not found in either the Pāli or Sanskrit versions. John Brough (who edited the GDhp) notes that it may have been "artificially introduced to buttress the pseudo-etymology of brāhmaṇa, if this arose originally in a dialect which assimilated br- of the latter word"; but, overall, he is doubtful about deriving P. bāheti from √bah or √vah and links it to √brah or √barh. [8] However, if we derive the verb from the same root as brahmaṇa (actually √bṛh) then the verb means 'to strengthen' and the sentence means the opposite of the parallels - i.e., that the Brahmin is one who strengthens evil. So we can probably conclude that the Gandhāran composer understood that this was a pun, and because in their dialect brāhmaṇa is spelt brammaṃa, introduced an 'r' into the verb to preserve the pun. Though it is strange that they should do this and obscure the meaning. Gāndhārī baheti is also listed as equal to P. bāhetvā in Stefan Baums and Andrew Glass (preliminary) Gāndhārī Dictionary, so we know that the 'r' is not required in that dialect.

Another version of the Dhammapada survives in a Sanskrit text which is called Udānavarga (UV 11.15)
brāhmaṇo vāhitaiḥ pāpaiḥ
śramaṇaḥ śamitāśubhaḥ
Note that UV has vāhita like the variant Pāli, and consistent with Sanskrit usage of the verb. In turn, this leads us to two parallels from the Pāli Udāna:
Yo brāhmaṇo bāhita pāpadhammo (Ud 1.5)

He is a Brahmin who avoids evil states

Bāhitvā pāpake dhamme, ye caranti sadā satā;
Khīṇasaṃyojanā buddhā, te ve lokasmi brāhmaṇā 'ti (Ud 1.6)

Having avoided evil states, they always behave mindfully;
With fetters destroyed and awake, they are called brahmins in the world.
Max Müller (in his Dhp translation) notes another occurrence of our phrase in the (Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit) Lalitavistara:
…trailokya-brāhmaṇaṃ bāhita-pāpakarmāṇaṃ bhikṣuṃ

...the three-worlds' Brahmin with evil deeds cast aside is a bhikṣu [LV 22.5]
Note that LV follows the Pāli in using bāhita. I've made no attempt at an exhaustive search; these are just the examples that come easily to hand. But still we have a number of passages which work together to show that at some point this pun on bāhenti/bāhmana must have been reasonably common, and have made sense - i.e., that the two words bāhetva/bāhita and bāhmaṇa shared the syllable bāh. We would have expected Pāli to preserve the pun, since bāhmana is the natural form of that word in Pāli. Since it did not, we have something of a mystery.

One possible conclusion is that the spelling was deliberately changed - and that this change affected not only the Pāli, but also the Buddhist Sanskrit usage. In turn, this suggests that LV emerged in a milieu that spoke a dialect closely allied to Pāli, though UV did not, since it uses the form vāhita. The change from bā > brā involves a Sanskritisation which suggests a Brahmin influence, since at the time Sanskrit was the sole preserve of the Brahmins, and yet it occurs precisely in the context of satires on Brahmanical beliefs. Madhav Deshpande has pointed to passages in the Lalitavistara Sūtra that indicate the "increasing prominence of Brahmanical elements within Buddhist traditions". [9] Perhaps Brahmin converts were able to live with the canonical criticisms of their former faith/culture and. in any case. could not erase them because it would be noticed; but they retained enough pride in their heritage to correct the spelling of their former social class across the whole canon?

Another possibility is that though the original dialect used bāhmaṇa, Pāli had brahmaṇa as a loan word directly from Sanskrit by the time the texts were translated into Pāli. The Gandhāran translator must have had (or heard) a text in the original dialect to see the pun, and make the unusual change they did. There is some linguistic evidence to suggest more than one wave of Indo-European speaking people moving into India, and that those who wrote the Vedas and built the Brahmanical culture may not have been directly connected to the earlier (or perhaps later) wave that moved much further east more quickly. This might allow for brāhmaṇa to be a new word to those in the East. But that is a complex argument, and this is now a long post. However, one important point to follow up would be to locate the Asoka use of bāhmaṇa geographically, and compare this to the most recent deliberations on the comparison of Pāli and the Asokan dialects.

~~| This is Rave no. 200 |~~

  1. There are some structural features which suggest that the text is not in its original form, especially the sudden transition between verse 9 and v.10. My guess is that a verse has which should introduce this part of the text has been lost. However, some have seen it as two separate texts. It is true that the narrative that stops at v.8 (v.9 is standalone and may not have originally been in this position) and is resumed at v.27. However, v.23 references v.4 linking the two. A verse which introduced the cosmogonic story would have been expected (cf other similar texts such as D.3, D.26 where the change is signalled). It is not hard to skip a verse when copying a text. This sort of thing is impossible to prove, however.
  2. The Puruṣa Sūkta mentions the Sāmaveda and Yajurveda written 500-600 years after the probable date of the Ṛgveda ca 1500-1200 BCE, so it must have been added to the Ṛgveda after this time. This is still well before the Buddha's days. For a discussion on sūkta/sūtra/sutta see: Philological Odds & Ends I.
  3. What the Buddha Thought, p.224, n.8. The earliest reference I have found to this theory is Müller, F. Max. The Dhammapada : A collection of verses being one of the canonical books of the Buddhists. Translated from pāli By F. Max müller . Oxford, the Clarendon Press [1881], p.liv (online text). However, Müller himself cites a German ethnographical study published in several volumes from 1866-68 so it may go back a few more years. (Note the Pali Text Society was founded in 1881.)
  4. In the Chaṭṭha Saṅgāyana edition of the canon the verb is spelt vāhenti rather than bāhenti. This confusion between ba and va is widespread and partly due to phonetics, and partly because the characters have always been similar in Indic writing: cf Devanāgarī: ब व. The two verbs unusually have slightly different senses in Pāli, and the va spelling further obscures the pun.
  5. Brough, J. The Gāndhārī Dharmapada. P. 178, n. 1.
  6. For which see my Yāska and his Nirukta, and Yāska, Plato and Sound Symbolism. For sound symbolism generally see Magnus, Margaret: What's in a Word? Studies in Phonosemantics. Unpublished PhD Dissertation; and her popular website Magical Letter Page. Magnus has shown that words which share an initial phoneme are indeed more likely to have overlapping semantic fields than words which do not. A growing body of evidence is challenging the Saussurian dictum that the "sign is arbitrary" which is the paradigm from which mainstream linguists see Yāska, and dismiss the value of nirukti etymologies as "fanciful".
  7. Gandhāra was in the Northwest of India - what is now the Taliban stronghold in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Several caches of texts from that region date from the first couple of centuries common era in a language which has been called by modern scholars after the region. This and the next passage are from: Ānandajoti Bhikkhu . A Comparative Edition of the Dhammapada with parallels from Sanskritised Prakrit edited together with A Study of the Dhammapada Collection. (2nd revised edition July, 2007 - 2551). Colombo, Sri Lanka.
  8. Brough, as for note 5.
  9. Deshpande, Madhav. Sanskrit & Prakrit, sociolinguistic issues. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1993, p.9.
  10. See, for instance, Deshpande, Madhav. 'Genesis of Ṛgvedic Retroflexion: a Historical and Sociolinguistic Investigation.' in Deshpande, Madhav M and Hook, Peter Edwin (ed.s) Aryan and Non-aryan in India. The University of Michigan, 1979. esp p.261ff.
image: Brahmin from