Showing posts with label Bronkhorst. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bronkhorst. Show all posts

24 May 2013


After my blog last week, a reader called Piotrek posted a comment that was very thought provoking, and as my answer grew I decided it might be better as a blog post since it touches on a number of issues.

We began discussing an article by Johannes Bronkhorst, Akālika in the Buddhist canon, in which the professor tried to show that akāliko, rather than meaning timeless means something like 'unconnected with death'. I did not find this very plausible and so Piotrek pointed me to another passage where the familiar word becomes an adjective of nijjarā instead of dhamma. In this blog I will present my assessment of Bronkhorst's article and this additional passage. 

There are some points we need to clarify for readers first. The word akālika is most familiar from the standard version a series of epithets of the Dhamma which I will call the Dhammavandana:
svākkhāto bhagavatā dhammo sandiṭṭhiko akāliko ehipassiko opaneyyiko paccattaṃ veditabbo viññūhīti.
The Dhamma of the Bhagavan is well told, evident, timeless, verifiable, progressive, and each intelligent person can see it for themselves.
The Buddhist tradition seems to be unconflicted in seeing this term as meaning 'timeless'. However some Bhikkhus have argued over what 'timeless' means. Ñāṇavīra, especially, has argued that it must mean that paṭicca-samuppāda is not a temporal sequence, but a structural one. He uses the image of a house: the foundations must be present to hold the walls up, as the walls hold up the roof. But this sequence is instantaneous (akālika) and gives rise only to mental objects. This is similar to my own view. I also use the house metaphor to show that the presence of the condition is required for the dhamma to arise. Last week I said that the use of the locative absolute syntax (with a present participle) implied this presence. However let us get back to the issue at hand. 

Bronkhorst points out that the two words sandiṭṭhiko and ehipassiko are known to be straight forward.  However he performs a sleight of hand here. By phrasing it this way he infers that akāliko is not so straightforward. He hints that it is somehow problematic, but to my knowledge it wasn't until now. In order for the argument to proceed he must first create the impression that there is a problem in understanding akālika.

He also proposes that sandiṭṭhiko and ehipassiko are synonyms. Firstly it's not clear why he focusses on these two and leaves out the other epithets. If the argument is proximity then we must point out that ehipassiko and opaneyyiko are similarly adjacent. The two words are not unrelated as they both come from roots meaning 'to see'. But the former means that it is 'able to to be seen', and quite frequently is applied to the visible world; while the second means 'come and see'. They are synonyms to the extent that 'visible' and 'inspect' are synonyms in English. And akālika is decidedly not from a root meaning 'to see'. It is true that Buddhist texts will sometimes string synonyms together, but this is stretching it. If we compare the epithets of the Buddha in the Buddhavandana then we see that they are very far from being synonyms.
itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavāti.
Such is the blessed Buddha, worthy, completely awakened, equipped with insight, in a happy state, with knowledge of the experiential world, unsurpassed, a tamer of men to be tamed, a teacher of gods and men, blessed.
It is only when the situation has been set up that Bronkhort can say "...the usual interpretation does not fit well". Buddhaghosa, on the contrary, hardly bothers to comment on the word, but seems in no doubt. At AA ii.256 he says "akālika means giving fruits at once." (akālikoti na kālantare phaladāyako); that is, the fruits (of a condition) arise with no time interval (kāla-antara). Also at SA i.43 and Nidd2 92 we get the short phrase "timeless simply means without time" (akāloyeva akāliko). Note that Bronkhorst carefully avoids any discussion of how the Buddhist tradition has understood this term. He goes so far as to label the Canonical commentary Cūḷaniddesa a 'late text', thus suggesting it has no relevance. Whereas generally speaking the Cūḷaniddesa is very useful for understanding obscure usage, if indeed this is an obscure usage which I dispute.

Having problematised the term to suit his purpose Bronkhorst proceeds to his ingenious reading of the Samiddhi Sutta (SN i.8-12). He tries to show that kāla must be related to the euphemistic idiom which combines kāla with a verbs deriving from √kṛ, i.e. 'to make his time', which means 'to die'. The evidence for this association in a single passage repeated in two suttas. However apart from the weaknesses already identified, lexiographers have not found a single other reference to kāla that implies kāla-kṛ. Kāla only takes on the association with death in this specific idiom when √kṛ is explicit. The word kālika is also attested in non-Buddhist Sanskrit texts in the sense of 'connected with time' (MW). 

If the author of the Dhammavandana had wanted to say "unconnected with death" he had plenty of formal and idiomatic options available to him: 'deathless' (amata) being the most blindingly obvious. What constraint was placed on the author that made him avoid the obvious in this one epithet, but not in the others? Since sensible and unproblematic translations can be made of the texts Bronkhorst submits as evidence, it looks like this was a case of a solution looking for a problem. It is not particularly plausible. And in the end how ironic would it be if one the epithets of the sandiṭṭhiko dhammo was itself asandiṭṭhiko (obscure).

Piotrek's proposition on the other hand is more interesting and more plausible even though it is not, in the final analysis, convincing. Let us work through the problem. The modified version of the Dhammavandana which includes nijjarā goes like this:
sandiṭṭhikā nijjarā akālikā ehipassikā opaneyyikā paccattaṃ veditabbā viññūhīti.
Eradication is evident, timeless, verifiable, progressive, and each intelligent person sees it for themselves.
In this version nijjarā is not described in precisely the same terms as dhamma, nijjarā does not come from the Bhagavan (bhagavatā) and lacks the quality of being well told (svākkhāto). This may reflect the difference between dhamma as verbal teaching and nijjarā as practice.

A word on what nijjarā (Skt nirjarā) means. According to the Jains, karma produces particles (dravya) which flow in (āsava) and stick to the soul (jīva), weighing it down so it stays in saṃsāra. The word nirjarā refers to the eradication (nirjarā) of these particles through austerity (tapas). Liberation (mokṣa) must be proceeded by the complete eradication (sarvanirjarā) of the particles, freeing the soul from saṃsāra

Note that because nijjarā is feminine in Pāli all the adjectives have become feminine as well (changed to the long -ā ending). Nijjarā is translated by Bodhi as "wearing away". Others translate as 'eradication, destruction, etc.'. Etymologically the word derives from nis + √jṛ 'to waste away'. Here the prefix simply seems to emphasise the nature of the action. Given the Jain reference, I settled on 'eradication'. 

This version is found in three places in the Pāli Nikāyas: AN i.220-1, AN ii.198, and most importantly at SN iv.339. In the latter passage we find a (Buddhist) description of this word. There are three kinds of nijjarā: the abandoning rāga, dosa and moha. The part of the passage that interests us is:
Rāge pahīne nevattabyābādhāya ceteti, na parabyābādhāya ceteti, na ubhayabyābādhāya ceteti.
When abandoning passion he does not intend to harm himself; does not intend to harm others; does not intend to harm both.
Note the typical way that Buddhists change doctrines when they assimilate them. Where the Jain would pursue eradication by self-torture (atta-byābādhāya) – particularly starvation and long periods of immobility – here the Buddhists have made eradication the complete opposite of what the Jains meant (to the extent we know what they meant). Just because this is a Jain term does not mean we should take the context as Jain. The context in the Pāli suttas is Buddhist. Always Buddhist. And this is why the reconstructions of early Jainism which rely so heavily on Buddhist texts are unreliable.

As in the last blog post this is a locative absolute construction: rāge pahīne 'once passion is abandoned'. The implication here is that when passion is abandoned there is the cessation of the intention to self-torture etc. The inclusion of akālika 'timeless' in the list of epithets of nijjarā suggests that there is no time lapse between abandoning passion and the cessation intention to self-torture. Which is just what we expect. There is nothing here to make us doubt that the word akālika might support Bronkhorst's  thesis.

However Piotrek's broader point was this.
"The dhamma which is described as "sandiṭṭhika akālika ehipassika" is, I think, nibbāna itself, which contrary to, for example, Jain belief is attainable in this life not only after death. So I believe that akālika has nothing to do with workings of paṭiccasamuppāda but describes nature of Buddhist goal."
It is true that later on nibbāna is described in terms which suggest timelessness. In the commentary on the Pārāyanānugīti gāthā from the Sutta-nipāta (Cūḷaniddesa 201) we find:
Nibbānaṃ niccaṃ dhuvaṃ sassataṃ avipariṇāmadhammanti asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ.
Nibbāna is permanent, constant, eternal, not subject to change, indomitable, unshakeable.
But it would unusual, I think, to take the Dhammavandana as referring to Nibbāna. Again, the Pāli author was free to say what he meant. This passage is in the context of praises of the three precious gifts: buddho, dhammo, sangho. It would be unusual to take dhamma here as synonymous with nibbāna and exclude the sense of paṭicca-samuppāda. After all the Śālistamba Sūtra does say:
yo pratātyasamutpādaṃ paśyati so dharmaṃ paśyati
yo dharmaṃ paśyati so buddhaṃ paśyati 
He who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma
He who sees the Dharma, sees the Buddha.
On the other hand the Dhamma as refuge often has a superlative connotation. Sangharakshita has referred to the refuges as representing a transcendental principle. So there is a sense in which the Dhamma as refuge does refer to the Dhamma in the sense of nibbāna. In this sense akālika is often read as meaning 'standing outside time', though the metaphysics of this proposition are complex to say the least. In this sense the principle of paṭicca-samuppāda is thought of as being like the law of gravity: it applies in all times and all places and thus is not time dependent. 

I'd like to thank Piotrek for his stimulating comments and hope my disagreement with him won't discourage him from continuing to contribute. As Mercier and Sperber have argued, reason really only works well when it is responding to a challenge. 


20 July 2012

Revisiting Greater Magadha

WHEN JOHANNES BRONKHORST'S BOOK Greater Magadha hit the scene a lot of us were over-awed by the scope and complexity of the argument. I wrote about my first encounter with it in a blog post called Rethinking Indian History (2009). A the time we thought it must be significant, and the new theory did seem to solve some of our problems. It was exhilarating to realise that history was able to be re-written.

However such a book is difficult to assess, and even after several years there has been little critical response to it from the field of Buddhist studies. A few reviews, but nothing of real substance. This may be because in order to place Bronkhorst's claims in context one must have a good grasp of a body of literature and evidence that is unfamiliar to most Buddhologists. If we haven't read Bronkhorst's oeuvre for example we'll struggle to really grasp where he's coming from. We also need to be familiar with writers on Indology such as Michael Witzel and Asko Parpola (neither of whom are read by many Buddhologists). The archaeological and anthropological studies are also critical - and they are scattered and from an entirely different discipline. And this work also relies on familiarity with Vedic literature and on the philological problems of dealing with it. In other words there is not much criticism because not many of us are qualified to read Bronkhorst critically.

At the same time Bronkhorst's book seems seems to have over shadowed Geoffrey Samuel's book The Origins of Yoga and Tantra which came out a year later. In fact Samuel is by far the better author, his book is far more readable and accessible, and about 1/10th of the price! His treatment of the relevant material (mainly based on an unpublished book by Thomas Hopkins) seems more credible, though it still has it's limitations.

At the time I was very enthusiastic about Greater Magadha because it was one of those moments when I realised that everything I thought I knew might be wrong, and what could be more exciting for a scholar? However I've been reflecting on Bronkhorst's book in the light of Geoffrey Samuel's book, and particularly Michael Witzel's equally awe inspiring writing (again far more accessible since he shares pdfs of many of his publications for free!). My conclusion is that Bronkhorst's thesis will not stand the test of time.

Bronkhorst, as my friend Dhīvan said in his recent M. Phil. thesis, is often arguing tendentiously. I like this word. It means that Bronkhorst has a conclusion that he is pursuing and this is reflected in how he treats the evidence. Everything is predicated on Bronkhorst's revised chronology and presented in such a way as to support his conclusions. In my view the evidence is read in the light of the theory, which is the opposite of the scientific method.

Poor Reasoning

There are some examples of faulty work in the Book. For example in the Appendix VI covering Brahmins in the Canon. Here he notes that the Ambaṭṭha Sutta may well refer to Sanskrit ambaṣṭha: i.e. someone born of a brāhmaṇa father and a kṣatriya or vaiṣya mother. Ambaṭṭha turns out to have a Brahmin father and a mother descended from a slave and is therefore low caste. Bronkhorst argues that here ambaṣṭha/ambaṭṭha must refer to the mixed caste of the interlocutor which is plausible. However a slave is not a kṣatriya or vaiṣya so Bronkhorst is stretching the evidence to suit himself. Richard Gombrich using the same kind of argument when arguing that the Buddha must have known about the Puruṣasūkta (ṚV 10.90) because he refers to Brahmins being born from Brahmā's mouth in the Tevijja Sutta. Bronkhorst points out that in the ṚV the Brahmins are born from Puruṣa's mouth, not Brahmā's and concludes that they Pāli authors "did not know" the sūkta (p.213). Bronkhorst seems to have a rather irrational aversion to Gombrich and it shows here in his inconsistent standards in treating the evidence. It also shows in his treatment of the humorous passages of the Pāli suttas which do not get a laugh from him.

Another example is the conclusion that because the Pāli texts are familiar with an idea found in the Dharmasūtras, that the Pāli texts must be late. The Dharmasūtras are much less securely dated than the Pāli, though the consensus seems to be that the written texts are originally post-Asoka. However it is also widely accepted that they codify conventions that are a great deal older, so there is no a priori reason to assume that a detail in isolation is late because it is found in a Dharmasūtra. And the Pāli parallels are all details in isolation.

Bronkhorst is caught out using fallacious reasoning on two separate occasions and this must put us on our guard. These examples are from areas I understand well enough to be sure of my ground. It might be argued that these are relatively minor infractions, but if someone like me can spot these kinds of minor problems, what are the professionals seeing? (and when will they write about them?)


Closer to the heart of the matter is that the very concept of Greater Magadha seems flawed. Yes, there are two cultures on the Ganges plain ca. 1000 BCE and one of them is the Kuru-Pañcāla state. The other one is not Magadha, but the Kosala-Videha complex which is formed from Vedic tribes forced to move east by the rise of the Kurus. Witzel has referred to these tribes as para-Vedic, as they seem to have had customs significantly different than the Kuru Vedic tribes. Videha in particular retains connections with the Kuru Brahmins and the Videhan Kings invite them east. This is what we see in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad when King Janaka invites a number of orthodox/orthoprax Brahmins to a debate. A debate which local boy Yājñavalkya wins. Yājñavalkya represents, even personifies, a major shift that is going on in the Brahmanical world. A shift away from the orthopraxy of the Kurus towards a new form of Brahmanism that forms the basis of what comes after. Not only is BU composed in Videha but so is the White Yajurveda, and the single extant recension of the Ṛgveda (which once existed in a number of different recensions). At this time Magadha hardly features in texts at all. Geographically Magadha is isolated from the major players by being south of the Ganges.

By the time of the Pāli texts Kosala is clearly more welcoming to Brahmins than Magadha which is further east, and crucially (in my opinion), south of the Ganges. The Pāli texts show more Brahmin towns and more land gifts to Brahmins in Kosala than in Magadha. In fact Bimbisāra gave only two grants and his murderous son Ajatasattu is not recorded as giving any. Later we know that the Mauryas were not converted to Brahmanism, but still followed śrāmaṇa religions.

Witzel considers that the evidence of the texts themselves, especially the language involved, show that the early Upaniṣads must predate the early Pāli texts by some centuries. Although he does point out that for both literatures there is a long gap between initial composition and final redaction, and this blurs the boundaries. The early Upaniṣads represent a time before the Second Urbanisation (ca 600-500 BCE), while the Pāli texts represent a time when it is in full swing. A difference not dealt with by Bronkhorst as far as I can see. Magadha as a power, with its fortified capital city Rājagaha, is only associated with the Second Urbanisation.

"Greater Magadha" as a region, then, only has meaning in Bronkhorst's idiosyncratic revised chronology which places all of the Upaniṣads post-Buddha. If anything the region is Greater Kosala in the late Vedic period (ca. 700-500 BCE)! It is true that the idea of ethicised karma does make a first appearance in BU, and I think Bronkhorst is on the right track when he says the Buddhist idea is not a development of Vedic eschatology, or at least not a direct development. What seems to mislead Bronkhorst is the idea that the source of this idea came along only in the 5th century. I believe this is short sighted, and ignores what we know about the history of ideas in India.


A fact which no scholar has yet come to grips with is that Brahmins, as far as they are recorded in the Pāli texts are quite diverse: we have at least ritualist, renunciate and theistic Brahmins, we also have some that are just plain villagers. Upaniṣadic ideas and practices are not found with any clarity in Pāli, they don't stand out, but they can apparently be inferred. We never see the Buddha in conversation with a Brahmin about ātman for instance, or about brahman, or the identity of the two (leading to mokṣa), or about oṃ, or the vedas. Where Brahmins express religious ideas in the Canon they are cosmological or related to a Creator God. The cosmological ideas are likely to have been common knowledge. The central ideas of the Upaniṣads are missing from Buddhist texts. This might be seen to support Bronkhorst's thesis, but I'm not so sure. My guess is that Brahmins maintained a relatively orthoprax exterior and kept the Upaniṣads secret for a long time--the word upaniṣad can mean 'esoteric'.

The theistic Brahmins have yet to receive adequate attention from scholars. Gombrich treats references to Brahmā as a criticism of brahman, but this only works in the specific context of the Tevijja Sutta, and what we see throughout the Canon is no mention of brahman, and many mentions of Brahmā. The theistic tendency has parallels in parts of the Mahābhārata, and may represent a kind of short-lived orthodoxy that is quickly over-written by the cults of Śiva and Viṣṇu which relegate Brahmā to saṃsāra just as the Buddhists did.


Taking Witzel's (1997) suggestion that the Śākayas arrived in North-East India rather late, I have developed this idea in my forthcoming article (draft on All things considered we can probably say that they arrived in the decade or two following 850 BCE. That year (± ~10 years) marks the beginning of a major dry period in India. Witzel notes that other North-Eastern tribes such as the Malla and the Vṛji were known to live in the West (Rajasthan and the Panjab) by early Vedic texts, but are neighbours of the Śākyas in the Pāli texts. At this time Kosala-Videha culturally dominates the Central Ganges region, and the Magadhan city of Rājagṛha is just about to be founded.

The argument is quite involved and requires the weighing of many separate items of circumstantial evidence, but a case can be made for contact between the Śākyas and the Zoroastrian culture of Iran. What is suggested by this line of argument is that the idea rebirth is found throughout Indian (perhaps it was an indigenous belief) but the introduction of ethicisation follows contact with Zoroastrianism. I try to make the case for this happening in the 9th century BCE, giving it time to infect the early Upaniṣads. However it could have come with Achaemenid influence after Darius claims Gandhāra and Sindh as provinces of Persia ca. 520 BCE.

Revised Chronology

One of the problems with Bronkhorst's argument is that he mixes texts from different eras and is relying on conjectural reconstructions. So he contrasts the Bhagavadgītā which is certainly written in the common era, with other bits of the Mahābhārata (post Asoka, but probably BCE), Pāli texts (ca 4th century BCE) Upaniṣads (7th-5th century BCE), and reconstructions of ideas of early Jain and Ājivika beliefs. This is not comparing apples with apples. A century of ideological development in a milieu which sees a lot of mixing and matching, assimilation and adaptation of each other's ideas and practices, can see major changes. So it seems to me Bronkhorst's method is flawed.

As I said above everything is predicated on Bronkhorst's revised chronology and presented in such a way as to support his conclusions. In other words one has to accept the his new chronology, which places the Upaniṣads after Buddhism rather than before it, and allows Brahmins to absorb ideas, particularly karma and rebirth, from the śrāmaṇa milieu. But the reasoning is circular. The thesis only works if we accept the chronology; while the chronology only fits if we accept the thesis. The same argument applies to the reconstructions of Jain and Ājīvaka religious ideas, especially the latter which are reconstructed mainly from Buddhist texts (a rather unreliable source of information!)


I think Bronkhorst has made a valuable contribution to the historiography of India. He has certainly made many of us rethink our understanding of and approach to the history of India before the Common Era, and this is a valuable service. A major challenge such as this forces us to be more precise in stating our differences of opinion if we have them. There are reasons to be cautious in accepting Bronkhorst's argument. I find I am persuaded by Witzel's account of the evidence as much because he seems to have no particular agenda as anything. Witzel has repeatedly, and at considerable length, played with the pieces of the evidential jigsaw in order to make a coherent picture from them. Samuel has showed that it is possible to read the archaeological evidence as supporting the consensus chronology. Following Witzel I have tried to show that the ideas might have come from a third source, Zoroastrian Iran, and been introduced into śrāmaṇa and Brahmin culture at roughly the same time. (Revising the article for publication is my next job).

Another plus is that Bronkhorst has made it abundantly clear that Buddhism can no longer be studied in isolation, but is a branch of Indology. Ignorance of archaeology and material culture (the gist of Greg Schopen's critique of Buddhist studies as a subject) is no longer acceptable. The Late Vedic literature--the Epics, Early Upaniṣads, Brāhmaṇas, Dharmasūtras, Dharmaśastras and even the Gṛhyasūtras--is starting to look more relevant in understanding early Buddhism. Early Buddhism existed in a context and we have been overlooking, or over-simplifying this context for too long. The downside of this is that an already complex subject appears to become an order of magnitude more complex. And this at a time when we are just beginning to make use of the Chinese parallels to the Pāli Nikāyas and discover the influence of Central Asia in transmitting Buddhist to the East. And this also at a time when Buddhist studies is dying out as an academic subject in the UK.

So far as I am aware no scholar has adopted Bronkhorst's revised chronology. And the whole thesis depends on acceptance of the chronology. It may be that more time is required for scholars to assimilate Bronkhorst's work, and to provide a critique. But in the meantime there are some obvious flaws in it that should make the reader wary of just accepting what he says uncritically.

I want to conclude with a coda on critical discourse. Not so long ago I was speaking to a prominent long time Buddhologist and they remarked that criticising someone else's work in print was coming to be seen as unacceptable. Certainly in the US where tenure depends on a positive reaction to one's work, critical dialogue is dwindling. Journals have apparently refused to publish critical articles.  If the refutation aspect of conjecture and refutation is abandoned, then progress in knowledge inevitably goes awry. Just look at economics!


Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : Studies in the Culture of Early India. Leiden: Brill.

If you know of other reviews drop me a line.

26 November 2010

Writing in India

For some time I have wanted to write a review of an article by Johannes Bronkhorst, now almost 30 years old.[1] The title is unprepossessing - "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda" - but the conclusions are interesting. The first part of his article recaps an earlier article that discusses the relative ages of the two forms of the Ṛgveda text. These two forms are Saṃhitāpāṭha and Padapāṭha. The Saṃhitāpāṭha (Sp) is the text as it is spoken. Sanskrit writing very early on recorded a great deal more of the spoken language than does our English script. Particularly as we run words together in spoken language we change the sounds subtly. In Vedic these changes - known as sandhi 'junctures' - are meticulously notated in the written text. By contrast the Padapāṭha (Pp) is more like English writing in that it records only the words themselves. The Pp is generally supposed to have been composed as an aide de memoir to help keep the oral tradition accurate. The extant Pp is attributed to Śākalya who's dates are uncertain.

I cannot reproduce Bronkhorst's complex arguments for the relative dating of Sp and Pp, but he concludes that the recension of the Pp that has come down to us is older than the recension of the Sp. Bronkhorst, as is his way, tells us his conclusion at the beginning: "I know of one plausible explanation: the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda was written down from its beginning" (p.184); and then offers his evidence.

The first evidence I have already mentioned: that the way we speak English is like the Sp, and the way we write it is like the Pp. He is suggesting that the relationship between Sp and Pp is just like the relationship between spoken and written English. The second is that the Pp contains some signs such as the daṇḍa (punctuation mark) and avagraha (similar to an apostrophe for noting elisions: like n't for not) which only really make sense in writing - they have no phonetic value of their own, and do not affect pronunciation generally. Like English punctuation they make reading easier. Bronkhorst also mentions a rule in Pāṇini's grammar which relates to the use of iti in more or less the same way as Western scholars use sic. He says:
"Pāṇini puzzles over the question of how the [manuscript] of the Ṛgveda (= Padapāṭha) must be read such that a correct recitation (= Saṃhitāpāṭha) is the result." (p.185)
This suggests that Pāṇini is likely to have been working with a written text.

As Bronkhorst himself says, there is no unanimity on the date for the beginning of writing in India. Bronkhorst himself opts for the case made by Bühler [2] who places the date at about 800 BCE.
"If we accept Bühler's ideas, and estimate that it took the Brahmans about a century to adopt the alphabet and adjust it to their needs, the earliest possible date for [the written text] becomes 700 [BCE]. A later date must however be prepared." (p.186)
Perhaps Bronkhorst reflects the state of knowledge at the time he was writing, though it is hard to imagine 78 years having passed with no contribution. In any case the subject has definitely moved on since Bronkhorst's article. Compare Richard Salomon in Indian Epigraphy [3]:
Bühler's suggestion of an early date of ca. 800 BC, or possibly earlier, for the 'introduction of prototypes of the Brāhma letters' in India is hardly plausible in light of modern knowledge, but more cautious estimates such as that of A. B Kieth [4] that 'the real development of writing belongs in all likelihood to the fifth century' are not unreasonable. (p.13)
Salomon points out that both the literary and epigraphical evidence is "vague or inconclusive" (p.12). It is rather more conventional to date writing in Indian to the 4th century BCE because this is the earliest date that can be confirmed by inscriptions minus a century. [5] (This practice of adding or subtracting a century to allow things to develop is pretty standard for scholars, though I sometimes wonder how justified it is!). However Salomon (p. 12) notes that pottery shards with Brahmī script writing found in Sri Lanka in the 1990's are variously dated to the 6th-4th century BCE, with most recent articles opting for the later end of the spectrum (i.e. towards the 4th century). [6]

Writing did not develop spontaneously in India, but was adapted from outside models. There is ample evidence for contact between India and the rest of the world. Already by the time the Buddha was born (ca 480 BCE) the Achaemanids were exacting tribute from the north-west of India (as far as the Indus River), and possibly were a substantial presence. As proof of contact Bronkhorst cites the Biblical mention of aloe-wood in Numbers (xxiv.6) which may date from between 900-722 BCE. Unfortunately the materials used for writing in India were not always durable, and stone inscriptions were not widely used until the reign of Aśoka (who may well have been imitating the Persian kings in his inscriptions).

The earliest form of writing we know about is the Kharoṣṭhī script which is clearly modelled on the Aramaic script used by Achaemanid Persian administrators. The Brahmī script is less clearly modelled on an outside script, but most scholars still see a relationship to Aramaic. I accept the arguments of Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel that the Indus Valley script is a form of graphic communication, but does not represent language - i.e. it is not writing, but similar to graphic signs in Sumeria about the same time.[7]

The received tradition is that (religious) Indians were not interested in writing because sacred texts were memorised and passed on orally. Though of course this does not explain why merchants and administrators would not use it, especially when they were in direct contact with cultures that did use writing much earlier. Although the evidence for an absolute date for writing in India, after more than a century of study is, in Salomon's words "disappointingly inconclusive"; and although Bronkhorst cannot establish a relative date for the Ṛgveda Padapāṭha, except in relation to the Saṃhitāpāṭha, we see in his article a contradiction of the old chestnut that ancient Indians were not interested in writing. The Ṛgveda was written down early on, probably by the time of Pāṇini, which suggests that writing may well have been in use during the life time of the Buddha, or not so very long afterwards. The writing down of the Buddhist canon in the 1st century BCE, therefore, was not the radical innovation that it is sometimes portrayed as. As the recent discovery tells us, writing may have been in use in Sri Lanka for 3 or 4 centuries by that time.

What Bronkhorst shows is that the relationship to writing may have been more complex, both at any give time and across time, than we generally think.


  1. Bronkhorst, Johannes. 1982. "Some observations on the Padapāṭha of the Ṛgveda." Indo-Iranian Journal. 24: 181-189.
  2. Bühler, Johan Georg. Indian Paleography, edited by John Faithful Fleet. Bombay: Bombay Education Society's Press, 1904. (Reprinted by Oriental Books Reprint Copr. 1980)
  3. Salomon, Richard. Indian Epigraphy: a guide to the study of inscriptions in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and the other Indo-Aryan languages. Oxford University Press, 1998. [This is an excellent and authoritative guide to the history of writing in India]
  4. Salomon is citing from E.J. Rapson (ed.) 1922. Cambridge History of India, vol. 1 'Ancient India'. Cambridge University Press, p.126.
  5. e.g. A. L. Basham. The Wonder that was India. 3rd revised edition. Rupa & Co. 1967. Writing is down played to the extent of not being mentioned in many histories of India, e.g. Stein, Burton. A History of India. Blackwell,1998; Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History of Early India : from Origins to AD 1300. Penguin, 2002.
  6. I've seen the 6th century figure seized upon and used as evidence of Brahmī being invented in Sri Lanka.
  7. A good place to start is Farmer, Steve. A One-Sentence Refutation of the Indus-Script Myth. 2005-2008; also excellent is Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, The collapse of the Indus-script thesis: The myth of a literate Harappan civilization. Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies 11-2 (13 Dec. 2004): 19-57.

image: Ṛgveda Saṃhitāpāṭha 1.1-2.

30 January 2009

Rethinking Indian History

Indian HistoryIn discussing the time of the Buddha it is axiomatic, especially in Buddhist accounts, that Brahminism was the main religion of the Āryan peoples who dominated the Ganges valley at that time. Buddhism is sometimes seen as a reaction against Brahmin orthodoxy, or even as a reform movement within it. While the latter view is clearly ridiculous, the former is backed up by many satirical and polemical texts which have Brahmins, and and their religion, in their sights. I have written about some of these before. The Brahmins are credited with the ideas of karma and rebirth, and with the idea of ātman as an immutable essence of the person. Also at this time, often viewed as an offshoot of Brahmanism were the Śramaṇa movements which denied the Vedic authorities and held a wild variety of views about the world and pursued a variety of religious practices, the most characteristic being severe austerity. Recently scholars have proposed a different model of India in the 5th century BCE in which the Brahmins were not dominant in the Magadha region and, in fact, did not become so until around the beginning of the common era.

Prof. Johannes Bronkhorst, building on a lifetime of Indological research, proposes that although speaking Indo-Āryan languages the Magadhans - centred around the area of modern day Bihar - were culturally distinct from the Brahmins of the western Kuru-pañcala region - the area around modern day Delhi. Bronkhorst suggests that, in fact, Brahmins saw the eastern Ganges valley region as wild and highly undesirable. Brahmins were moving Eastwards, none the less, and creating the conditions to extend their hegemony.

The idea of two cultures eventually merging is supported by archaeological evidence in the form of styles of pottery. One of the features which differentiated the Magadhans was the making of round funeral mounds (precursors of the stūpa). The Brahmins, who preferred square mounds, left negative comments about them in their texts. The two cultures preferred, at least for some time, different styles of government. A feature of Māgadha, for instance, was the small oligarchical state. It was in this kind of state, where a small number of senior men governed, that the Gotama the Buddha was said to have been born. Other Māgadhan states were more like city states ruled over by a king. Geoffrey Samuel, who has independently proposed a two culture model, suggests that the two regions developed contrasting images of kingship: the warrior king (cakravartin) and the wisdom king (dharmarājā) were associated with the western and eastern ends of the Ganges Valley.

Meanwhile, in Māgadha the śramaṇa tradition was developing a series of new religious ideas which were to revolutionise the Brahmin world view. It was in Māgadha that the three notions which came to define Indian religion were developed: karma, rebirth, and ātman (the immutable Self). Contrary to the received tradition, Bronkhorst argues that the early Upaniṣads show the Brahmins in the process of assimilating these ideas. They show at times, for instance in the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad (BU), a form of rebirth (actually redeath, punarmṛtyu) not linked to karma; and then in the same text, in a section believed to be later in time, a version of rebirth linked to actions in life. In the first chapter of BU ātman often means simply "body".

The Jains believed that all actions - both voluntary and involuntary - accumulated 'dust' on the jīva or soul. This weighs the soul down to earth. Austerity can burn up old karma, allowing the soul to be lightened and eventually liberated. They therefore pursued self-mortification to extremes. It was this kind of practice which the Buddha is said to have engaged in during his time as an ascetic. The Ājivakas, although believing in the notion of karma, did not believe that it could be mitigated, and so were more or less fatalistic - one could be liberated but it would take 8,400,000 aeons whatever you did. However, both believed that, actions having consequences, the best thing to do was not to act, and this taken to the extreme resulted in lying down and dying from starvation or thirst. A less extreme version of this was to refrain from moving for long periods of time, and to reduce food to an absolute minimum - the basis of their austerity practices. It was the Ājivakas who first developed the idea of a 'self' which did not participate in the actions of the person, and was not sullied by the consequences of such actions - although it was still bound to continual rebirth.

Karma, Rebirth, and an independent eternal self were to become the pre-occupations of the Brahmins as we see in the Bhagavadgītā, a text which seems to define modern Hinduism if any text can. Brahmins gave rebirth their own spin. Karma changed from being the special ritual actions associated with the sacrifice, to being actions performed in accordance with one's caste duty (dharma). The self is shown by Kṛṣṇa to be untouched by actions and thus it is Arjuna's caste duty to slaughter his relatives in battle, and he is not to worry since the ātman (either his or his relatives') cannot be killed or stained by the apparently 'sinful' action of murder. What emerges in the earliest Upaniṣads is a kind of hybrid of the old Vedic sacrificial religions - with the gods Indra, Soma, Agni at the centre - and the new ideas which featured Brahman as a kind of universal principle, and as time went on as Brahmā a creator god.

Signe Cohen has shown that the Upaniṣads, as well as recording the ideas of the new hybrid Brahminism, highlight internal issues of authority. The Bṛhadāranyaka, for instance, asserts the value of the Yajurveda over the much older Ṛgveda. This can be seen in the pre-eminent position of Yajñavalkya (the legendary composer of the Yajurveda) and the relatively lowly Ṛgvedic priests whom he defeats in debates, and one of whom is shown being taught by a Kṣatriya which is a reversal of the Brahminical social order. So there were tensions within parts of the Brahmin community, with innovators vying for influence. Significantly, the Bṛhadāranyaka is associated with the eastern extreme of the Brahminical heartland - where it would have had a greater exposure to the new ideas. Although it is common to speak of "Upaniṣadic" ideas, practices, or texts, in fact, the Upaniṣads are very heterogeneous - both compared to each other and even, at times (in the BU, for instance), when comparing sections within a text.

Buddhism developed on the margins of Māgadha where it overlapped with the Brahminical territory. The Buddha rejected the mainstream Māgadhan religious views of the Jains and Ājivakas; rejected the new hybrid Brahmanism being developed by eastern Brahmins, often associated with the Yajurveda traditions; and rejected the traditional Vedic sacrificial religion. However, he appears to have been quite knowledgeable about each of them - at least enough to compose satires and polemics.

In my own research I have been exploring parallels in idiom between the Pali texts and the early Upaniṣads, especially the BU. The fact that the Pāli texts are aware of the themes and idioms of the BU may previously have suggested that the Buddha might have known about this text - taking into account that it was an oral tradition with several versions. However, we now have to be more cautious. The early Upaniṣads are dated earlier than the Buddha on the basis that the earliest Buddhist texts seem to be aware of Upaniṣadic themes. But now we may say that the Buddhists were as likely to be responding to these ideas in Jain or Ājivaka circles. Both BU and the Pāli texts might have been drawing on a common pool of Māgadhan ideas and language. And actually this makes better sense, because the Brahmins were jealous of their teachings and tended to keep them secret! Not being a Brahmin (by most accounts anyway, and despite having a good Brahmin surname - Gautama!) the Buddha wasn't in a position to know the contents of the secret teachings (which is one way of translating the word 'upaniṣad'). If the secret teachings were in fact a Brahminical adaptation of Māgadhan teachings, which the we can be fairly sure the Buddha was exposed to, then this would better explain their presence in the Pāli texts. We also know that some Pāli texts, particularly the Dhammapada, seem to have drawn on a common pool of wisdom verses which were not specifically Buddhist or Brahminical.

This is a very different picture of history. Admittedly it is somewhat speculative and will need to be tested with further research - the book is only a year old and likely only to be available in university libraries, although it draws on Bronkhorst's many previous publications. However, I think it is plausible, and that is already corroborated by Samuel and to some extent by Cohen. It is certainly a more nuanced view of India circa 500 BCE. Some work remains to be done to reassess earlier research to see if what we already know makes more sense in this framework than it did previously. My initial feeling is that it does make more sense.

One thing that it highlights is the folly of trying to understand the socio-historical aspects of Buddhism without reference to the context which the Buddha operated in. Certain ideas and practices make better sense in a broader perspective than Buddhists are usually operating in. Sadly, Bronkhorst's book is a very expensive item at more than £130, and not likely to be available outside major university libraries. But you should be able to get your local public library to get it on "Inter-Library Loan". Cohen is similarly very expensive, but happily Samuel's is more reasonably priced and a good read.

  • Bronkhorst, Johannes. 2007. Greater Magadha : studies in the culture of early India. Leiden : Brill.
  • Cohen, Signe. 2008. Text and authority in the older Upaniṣads. Leiden : Brill
  • Samuel, Geoffrey. 2008. The Origins of Yoga and Tantra : Indic Religions to the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge University Press.

Alexander Wynn has just published a thoughtful review of Greater Magadha on H-net reviews.