Showing posts with label Buddha. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Buddha. Show all posts

08 June 2018

Asoka's Dates and Historicity

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Joe Cribb at the Ancient India and Iran Trust (25 May 2018). Joe was keeper of coins at the British Museum and is an expert on early coins in the area of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, his main interest is in what coins and other physical objects can tell us about chronology. The gist of his lecture for the AIIT was a revised chronology of the Kushan period of Gandhāra, ca. 1-500 CE. The lecture covered much the same ground as a recent paper: Numismatic evidence and the date of Kaniṣka I. This is an important result for anyone interested in, for example, early Buddhist art in Gandhāra. Some of the earliest images of the Buddha appear on Kushan coins. 

Much of my pleasure at meeting Joe was that, just the day before, I had downloaded and read his 2017 article on the dates of Asoka. He was spurred to reconsider the dates of Asoka by our mutual friend Richard Gombrich, former Professor of Sanskrit at Oxford University, though it took him some time to get around to publishing his findings.

Dating the Buddha

In 1992, Gombrich had argued for a revised reading of the ordination lineages found in the Dīpavaṃsa, a history composed in Sri Lanka. Gombrich's most relevant conclusion is that:
...the Buddha died 136 years before Asoka’s inauguration, which means in 404 B.C. So, taking the margin of error into account, he died between 411 and 399 B.C., probably towards the middle of that period. (1992: 20)
This revised date for the parinibbāṇa has become widely accepted amongst scholars, though it is approximately a century later than the traditional dates (of which there are more than one). However, note that Gombrich's date relies on the only fixed point in early South Asian ancient history, the dates of Asoka.

Dating Asoka

The tale of the rediscovery of Asoka by Military and Civil officers of the British East India Company acting as amateur archaeologists is engagingly retold by Charles Allen in his book Ashoka (2012). I won't go over this ground, but I want to make the comparison with the Buddha as a legendary figure and Asoka as an historical figure.

We know about the Buddha from living Buddhist traditions and from the extant texts of both living and dead Buddhist traditions. The story of the Buddha as the founder of our religion has been told and retold for centuries. How many centuries we are not sure, but at least 20 and as many as 25. The old literary strata of our texts had to have been composed after the so-called "second urbanisation" which occured in the Ganges Valley after about 700-600 CE. The first urbanisation was the enigmatic Indus Valley Civilisation, which ended ca. 1700 BCE due to climate change. However, survivors of that prolonged drought moved north and blended with the populations there, so the people themselves lived on. The second urbanisation was a rather extended process, and some sources place the emergence of the key city of Sravasti as late as ca 400 CE. I need to look more closely at this as  Sravasti (Pāli Sāvatthī) is a key location for the Buddhist stories and its dates can help us to narrow down when the production of such stories began. 

Since the Nikāya and Āgama texts don't mention Asoka or his Grandfather, we may infer that they were composed before his time. I think Cribb makes this argument all the more plausible. This means that the earliest texts were composed between ca. 700 and 300 BCE.

The modern discussion about Asoka's dates is quite vague, partly because the basic facts became established in the 19th Century. For a few decades references were made to the original observations, but after a while everyone just takes it all for granted and says that Asoka reigned in the mid 3rd Century BCE and leaves it at that. His dates are sometimes given more precisely. The Wikipedia entry on Asoka, for example, citing the first edition of Romila Thapar's excellent History of India, says that he "ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 BCE," the latter date also being the date of his death. These dates are widely accepted as being accurate, if not very precise.

Cribb notes that the dating of Asoka is based on a number of different sources of evidence:
Our knowledge of Mauryan chronology comes from five main sources: Buddhist texts like the Dīpavaṃsa, Jain and Purāṇic texts, references to the Mauryan kings in Classical Greek and Latin texts and the inscriptions of the reign of the third Mauryan king Ashoka. (2017: 5)
All of these sources, except for the inscriptions, were composed long after the life of Asoka. The inscriptions themselves are the single most important historical source, not only for Buddhists, but for all of ancient history in India. Rock Edict no. 13 mentions five Greco-Bactrian kings:
"Of the five Greek kings three are of chronological significance: Antikini must represent Antigonus Gonatus (276-239 BC); Maka must be Magas king of Cyrene (c 283- 250 BC); Alikasundra is most likely Alexander II of Epirus (272-255). The other two cannot be used to create any direct chronological evidence: they are Antiyoki, i.e., Antiochus, and Turamaya, i.e., Ptolemy." (2017: 8)
This edict is not dated, but by combining inferences drawn from other edicts, we may conjecture that it was created in the 13th or 14th year of Asoka's reign. Knowledge of these kings reflects the period 272-255 BCE and, allowing a year for the news of them to travel, suggests that the edict was made in 271-254, making his coronation dates 285/4-268/7 BCE. Sri Lankan sources suggest a delay of four years between accession and coronation.

Greek and Latin sources do not mention Asoka, but they do seem to mention his grandfather, Chandragupta:
"The Classical historians Diodorus (16.93-4) and Curtius (IX.2.1–7) referred to the Indian king ruling at the time of Alexander the Great's invasion of north-western India, 326-5 BCE, in terms which correspond to the descriptions in Indian texts of one of the Nanda predecessor of the Mauryan kings (low born, śūdra origin and the descendant of a barber, Singh 2012, 272–3), who the same sources state immediately preceded Chandragupta. Diodorus called him Xandrames; Curtius called him Agrammes. These texts can be seen as evidence that Chandragupta was not yet king in 325 BCE." (2017: 6)
Chandragupta is also apparently referred to by Pompeius Trogus, Strabo, Appian, Hegesandrus. All of these European classical authors were writing long after the time, and their observations have to be treated with caution. Cribbs notes that all previous treatments of them have taken these sources at face value, but they have also misinterpreted these texts to fit a preconceived idea about Indian chronology.

The Greek and Roman sources put the beginning of Chandragupta's reign "at about 321 BCE, with the range proposed being c. 324–320 BCE." (2017: 9). Cribb discusses the various accounts of the length of the reigns of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka, including summaries of the Purāṇīc and Jain texts. He concludes that "the Greek and Roman sources are pointing to the accession of Chandragupta during the period c. 311 (unlikely to be earlier than 316) to 303 BCE." (2017: 11).

As it turns out, in order to make the highest number of the various dates match up, it is necessary to adopt Richard Gombrich's revised reading of the Dīpavaṃsa. This gives the date of Asoka year 1 based on his accession (with coronation four years later) as no earlier than 285/4 BCE and no later than 270/1 BCE.

Based on the Dipavaṃsa sources, anchored by the revised dates for Asoka, this places the Buddha's parinibbāṇa no earlier than 423 BCE and no later than 389 BCE, i.e., less precise than Gombrich's dates (411-399 BCE), but centred on roughly the period, i.e., beginning of the 4th Century BCE. As I noted above, Sravasti might have emerged as a city around this time or only a little earlier. Sravasti is the established capital of Kosala in Buddhist and Jain texts, as well as in Pāṇini's grammar.

Cribb sounds a final note of caution that we do not actually know that the edicts of Asoka were composed and/or inscribed by him or during his lifetime. We need to constantly question the accepted wisdom of our time, because it is often simply based on assumptions that have become hidden over time.

A Historical Figure?

Some time ago I linked to David Drewes (2017) article, in which he starts out by saying:
We are thus left with the rather strange proposition that Buddhism was founded by a historical figure who has not been linked to any historical facts, an idea that would seem decidedly unempirical, and only dubiously coherent. (Drewes 2017: 1)
This, unsurprisingly, proved to be a provocative statement for many Buddhists and members of the Triratna Buddhist Order. For many of us the historicity of the Buddha is not only beyond doubt but to doubt it seems a little perverse. I bring it up again because Cribb's article draws together all the research which makes Asoka seem to very definitely be a historical figure and this highlighted for me what a historical figure is.

Over and above the inscriptions in stone which purport to have have been erected by Asoka, the stories of Asoka were preserved by Buddhists, Jains, and Hindus in India, and by Greeks and Romans outside of India. Of course, we must keep in mind that the Greek Herodotus was not only called the Father of History, but also the Father of Lies. Like other writers of his age, he never let the truth get in the way of a good story (there is nothing new about "fake news"). All of these sources, particularly those composed centuries after the facts they recount, taken individually must be treated with caution, even the inscriptions themselves. However, taken together they make a compelling case. Asoka may well be a figure of legends and myths, but he also has a good claim to be the first genuinely historical figure in Indian history (Pāṇīni is another claimant to the title, but his dates are based on Asoka's).

In contrast, the Buddha is a figure only of Buddhist stories. No account of him is found in Jain or Hindu texts, let alone in Latin or Greek. It might be argued that they could not be expected to record someone outside of their own communities, except that the Buddhist texts record many encounters between the Buddha and non-Buddhists. Of course, there are no written records until some centuries later, but if we preserved stories from that time, why would others not? Would the Brahmins not have been keen to denounce Buddhists as heretics for denying both ātman and Brahman?

Recall that, by the time of Roman and Greek contact with the Mauryans, the Buddha was nearly a century dead and his followers could be found throughout the Empire. Did other groups really not meet any or hear news of them?

One of the arguments for the historicity of the Buddha (i.e., for his being a historical figure) is that we all tell the same story, more or less, about him. I'm not the first to point out that actually the received story is contradicted in many details in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta account of his life. In an unpublished article (Attwood 2013), I've argued that we know his name was not Siddhārtha and there is reason to doubt that his name was even Gotama. With respect to this, if Buddhism began with a small group of people and expanded out, at the end of the process all Buddhists would have a version of the original story of founding that the small group told. In a published article (2012) I argued that, based on the preserved stories, the small group in question, the Śākya tribe, might have arrived in Central Ganges Valley having ultimately come from Iran. That idea was first put forward informally by Michael Witzel and I simply formalised it. The same year Witzel (2012) published a masterly account of the origins of world mythology in the small group who left Africa ca. 100,000 years ago (incidentally allowing us to set aside Jung's fantasy about a "collective unconscious").

The historicity of Asoka is not in doubt because there is a range of evidence for his having lived. Some of the details of his life may be vague or in doubt, but he himself is beyond any reasonable doubt. Asoka was a man who lived in India in the 3rd Century BCE. He inherited an Empire, which collapsed not long after his death. Accepting the historicity of Asoka is a simple matter of rationality. It would be irrational to argue that the evidence amounts to nothing.

Whether or not any reader accepts the historicity of the Buddha depends entirely on how much credence they give to the Buddhist stories about the Buddha. One of the arguments is that it is the simplest way to account for the stories - all those stories must be based on a man. I think this is doubtful for two reasons. The texts themselves are full of stories that are unequivocally myths (stories about gods and fairies) and legends (stories about past Buddhas). We know that the authors of these stories had good imaginations, they used a wealth of similes, metaphors, imagery, and humour to convey their message. They clearly did make up stories (e.g., the Jātakas) in order to communicate their values. And such stories are also common to all of Buddhism. So why not the founder figure also?

The other objection to this is that the preference for simple answers is a known cognitive bias and it turns out that things are almost never simple. We tend to think of evolution in terms of the tree metaphor - things getting more complex over time, and therefore simpler as we look back in time. History, in this view, is simpler, the further back we go. This bias makes a single founder figure, uninfluenced by his family or culture, seem much more likely than it otherwise would. It's common, for example, for naive historians to say that WWI was started by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, ignoring the vast number of factors which had to have accumulated beforehand for this spark to give rise to a global war.

This may also be an artefact of what is sometimes called The Great Man Theory of History. In this view, a handful of men (not women), are responsible for history. Therefore, when we study history, we give precedence to studying the lives of great men and trying to understand their psychology. The ways in which this is wrong are so numerous as to require a book to refute them all. Most of how we think about individual psychology is bunk, based on fantasies composed by Freud and his bastards. Social factors are much more likely to influence behaviour than individual psychology, including in the case of powerful men. Women are as much a part of history. And those men who are powerful are often involved in the mass manipulation of societies that have to bend to their will instead of rebelling in order for the man to wield power (i.e., societies make individuals great, not the other way around). 

It is more accurate to say that everything influences everything else and that any one person seen in isolation is very unlikely to be significant. Founders do occur. But if we take the example of Christianity, it has long been acknowledged by scholars that the shape of Christianity as a religion had a lot more to do with people down the ages than it does to do with Jesus. Buddhism is much the same. Whenever the founder became inconvenient, followers simply changed the story or made up a new bit, just as they made up his forgotten name.

The Buddha's final death was seen as extremely inconvenient by all Buddhists by the beginning of the Common Era. For most Buddhists, the knowledge that the Buddha was gone and never coming back was a catastrophe. They started to invent new stories: this included Buddhas from parallel universes (and we mock the Scientologists for their beliefs). Best of all, we invented a class of beings (with both mythic and human representatives) who were able to get enlightened without disappearing from the world - i.e., awakening without the ending of rebirth, when to that point the whole raison d'être of Buddhism was to end rebirth. These beings would stay to help out, the way that the Buddha had not. There was even a suggestion (played up by some modern Buddhists) that Gotama had been selfish to get enlightened and end rebirth for himself, leaving the rest of us on the carousel.

In any case, I hope the contrast between the Buddha and Asoka is clear with respect to the kind of evidence that makes a person a "historical person". For Asoka, there is a wealth of evidence both textual and physical. For the Buddha, only stories told by Buddhists.

The last time I bought this up within the Triratna Buddhist Order, some people argued that it didn't matter to them whether or not the Buddha was historical. I think this attitude is probably quite widespread. But as some people in our community still struggle with this issue or reject any suggestion that the founder myth is not true, or at least based on a true story, it is problematic for all of us. We agree, to some extent, on the role of faith in our Order, but are not in harmony on the issue of articles of faith. For example, on the issues of karma and rebirth, even those of us who believe in the Buddhist versions of the twin myths of the just world and the afterlife, disagree on the details of how they work. 

Some years ago Dharmacārin Subhūti expressed his fear that we might drift into doctrinal incoherence and therefore needed to impose limits on the Order. I would argue that we long ago passed that point, if, indeed, we ever had such coherence. Discussions about articles of faith such as the founder, the just world, and afterlife are apt to be emotionally charged and divisive. Not believing (and there are many of us who don't) is seen as deeply problematic: more so, for example, than the gap between those who favour incompatible Buddhists views on such issues as those who draw fairly exclusively on Theravāda, Madhyamaka, or Yogācāra ideology, for example. These are three incompatible views.

Non-sectarian scholarship inevitably steps on people's sacred cows. Which is why most of us ignore it in favour of sectarian scholarship, I suppose.


Sources Cited

Allen, C. (2012). Ashoka: The Search for India's Lost Emperor. Abacus

Attwood, J. (2012). Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 3, 47-69. Online

Attwood, J. (2013) Siddhārtha Gautama: What‘s in a Name?. Unpublished.ārtha_Gautama_Whats_in_a_Name

Cribb, J. (2017). 'The Greek Contacts of Chandragupta Maurya and Ashoka and their Relevance to Mauryan and Buddhist Chronology' in Kamal Sheel, Charles Willemen and Kenneth Zysk (eds.) From Local to Global, Prof. A.K. Narain Commemoration Volume, Papers in Asian History and Culture (3 vol.). Delhi: Buddhist World Press. Vol. I: 3–27. Online.

Drewes, D. (2017). The Idea of the Historical Buddha. JIABS. 40: 1–25. Online.

Gombrich, R. (1992). 'Dating the Buddha: A Red Herring Revealed' in Heinz Bechert (ed.), The Dating of the Historical Buddha/Die Datierung des historischen Buddha, Part 2 (Symposien zur Buddhismusforschung, IV, 2). Göttigen: venderhoeck & Ruprect, pp.237-59. Online.

Witzel, E. J. M. (2012). The Origins of the World's Mythologies. Oxford University Press.

04 September 2015

The Trackless One?

In two well known verses from the Buddhavaggo of the Dhammapada, the Buddha is referred to as apada. Many translations read apada "the trackless one". The great philologist of Middle-Indic, K. R. Norman, translates "leaving no track, by what track will you lead him?" The translation of these verses has long puzzled me. Why would one who "leaves no track" be difficult (or impossible) to lead somewhere? And isn't the image messed up? A track can lead somewhere, but do we lead someone by a track? What about the translation "trackless". What could this possibly mean? So when someone wrote to me recently with a question about these verses, I spent some time working on the verses and I think I came to a better understanding of apada. The two verses in Pāḷi read:
yassa jitaṃ nāvajīyati jitaṃ yassa no yāti koci loke
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |179|
yassa jālinī visattikā taṇhā n'atthi kuhiñci netave
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |180|
The key word is pada. It is a tricky word with many meanings. It literally means "foot" and comes from the Proto-Indo-European *ped- "foot". Some cognates, all meaning "foot" include Greek pod; Latin ped; Proto-Germanic *fot; and English foot. In Pāli, living creatures are characterised as sattā apadā vā dvipadā vā catuppadā vā bahuppadā  "beings with no feet, with two feet, with four feet or with many feet" or "footless, bipeds, quadrupeds, and creepy-crawlies" (SN v.41, AN ii.34).

In Sanskrit and Pāḷi pada can, by association, also mean "footprint". For example, in the Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta (MN 27) an elephant's footprint (hatthipada) is used a metaphor for the experience of the stages of liberation - a tathāgatapada "a footprint of the Tathāgata" or a sign by which one can know the Tathāgata. The other types of sign that elephants leave help to fill out the image: uccā nisevita "a high-up scratching place" and dantehi ārañjitāni "furrows made by tusks". In the simile of the text one must see the foot that made the footprints, in order to fully comprehend the elephant.

Abstractly, the image of the footprint as a sign of the passing animal can become "a sign" more generally. This led to the sense of pada as a "word" (a linguistic sign). Sometimes pada can mean "a track" as in a series of footprints left behind by an animal's feet or the track created by many passing feet. Metaphorically, a verse has "feet" of a fixed number of syllables: siloka meter has four feet of eight syllables, for example. So when we see this word pada in a text, we always have to pause to carefully consider what sense is intended. Ironically, one of the more difficult words to translate is dhammapada. Partly because pada here is singular and the text is an anthology of verses. Does pada here mean, 'foot', 'sign', 'word', or 'track'? 

The majority of translators have opted to translate pada/apada in these Dhammapada verses with some variation on "track" and "trackless". One leaves a track as one goes. One follows a track; one follows where the track leads. The verb in these verse is √nī 'lead'. We have the English idiom of a track "leading somewhere". So "track/trackless" may fit the context. However, why would one who leaves no track be difficult to lead? What is the logic of this image? By taking the two verses together I first argue that pada must mean something like "sign" here, because it is strongly implied by the verses. However, as I dig deeper into the word apada and how it is used, I uncover another more fundamental metaphor which seems to inform the passage. 


yassa jitaṃ nāvajīyati |179a|
What he has won cannot be lost
Jita is the past tense of jayati 'he wins, he conquers' < √. It can mean that which was conquered (yad jitaṃ), or "it was conquered by him" (tena jitaṃ), the "one who has conquered" (jito), or simply "a victory". It's combined here with avajīyati, the passive of ava√jī, 'diminished, lost, undone.' So the sense of the sentence is that what has been won by him cannot be lost. His transformation cannot be undone. His victory cannot be diminished

jitaṃ yassa no yāti koci loke |179b|
What he has won does not go anywhere in the world
Metrically jitaṃ seems to belong with 179a, but semantically it is part of this sentence (179b). Word order is much less important in Pāḷi, especially in verse, so yassa jitaṃ or jitaṃ yassa both mean the same thing: "his victory, what he has won". And it "does not go (no yāti) anywhere (koci) in the world (loke)." This sentence is a bit esoteric. But consider it in the light of the Rohitassa Sutta (S 2.26, PTS S i.61; also A 4.45, PTS A ii.47), in which the eponymous young deva asks the Buddha:
yatha nu kho bhante na jāyati na jīyati na mīyati na cavati na upapajjati, sakkā nu kho so, bhante, gamanena lokassa anto ñātuṃ vā daṭṭhum vā pāpuṇituṃ vā ti?
Is there a way to know, or see, or to reach, the end of the world – where there is no birth, no ageing, no death; no dying and being reborn – by travelling?
The answer is that one cannot reach the goal by physically travelling. He also says:
na kho panāhaṃ, āvuso, appatvā lokassa antaṃ dukkhassa antakiriyaṃ vadāmi. Api ca khvāhaṃ, āvuso, imasmiṃyeva byāmamatte kaḷevare sasaññimhi samanake lokañca paññapemi lokasamudayañca lokanirodhañca lokanirodhagāminiñca paṭipadanti. (S i.62)
However, friend, I say there is no making an end of disappointment, without reaching the end of the world. And, friend, it is right here in this arm-span measure of body endowed with perception and cognition that I declare the world, the origin of the world, the cessation of the world, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.
These passages help to define what we mean by 'the world'. As Bodhi says, 
"The world with which the Buddha’s teaching is principally concerned is ‘the world of experience,’ and even the objective world is of interest only to the extent that it serves as that necessary external condition for experience" (Bodhi 2000: 394, n.182).
So "the world" referred to in the verse is most likely the world of experience, the world contained in the body endowed with mental faculties, the end of which can be reached without travelling. And perhaps this is why the tathāgata's victory does not go anywhere in the world?

taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ |179c|
Awakened, with limitless perception, signless
Anantagocaram is also a compound meaning one whose sphere or field of sense perception (gocara - literally 'pasture' or the 'range of a cow') is without ends (an-anta). Compare Dhp 22 where the ones who enjoy sobriety with respect to the senses (appamāde pamodanti) are ariyānaṃ gocare ratā "those who delight in the range of the nobles (i.e., the enlightened)." 
We've already introduced the words pada and apada, and until we have translated 180 we just need to say that apadaṃ is something predicated of the Buddha. Metrically apadam is part of 179d, but syntactically goes with buddhaṃ.

kena padena nessatha? |179d|
By what sign will you lead him?
The verb is neti 'to lead', from √. The form nessatha is the second person plural future tense, "you (plural) will lead". The future can also be used to convey a hypothetical proposition. However, while 'lead' is the primary meaning and goes well with pada as "track", we need to consider that √has a range of other meanings. It can also mean 'takes, takes away, especially to take away in marriage, carries off.' In Sanskrit the verb can also mean 'to bring to subjection, subdue.' So we must consider that the sentence could read: "By what pada could you take him away?" or "By what pada could you subdue him?" And in each case "you" plural. 
We'll take 180a and b together, and 180cd is the same as 179cd.

yassa jālinī visattikā taṇhā n'atthi kuhiñci netave |180ab|
He has no lust, clinging, or craving to lead [him] anywhere.
Now the verb here is also from √., here a rare form of the infinitive 'to lead'. Although the sentence is phrased in the negative (n'atthi "there is not") let's first consider it in the positive. If we ignore the negative particle na for a minute the sentence would say that he is led by desire for sense experience, i.e., lust (jālinī), clinging (visattikā) or craving (taṇhā). Such a person would be padaṃ, which must mean they are characterised by a sign. And that sign is craving itself. By contrast, the Buddha is apadaṃ and thus he has no craving to lead him anywhere. Padaṃ and craving play the same role in the sentence. Ergo, what this verse means by padaṃ is craving. It's a little odd, but not as odd as the standard translations. 

Our finished translation is:
What he has won cannot be lost,
What he has won does not go anywhere in the world.
That awakened one, with limitless perception, who is himself signless,
By what sign will you lead him? (179) 
He has no lust, clinging, or craving,
To lead him anywhere.
That awakened one, with limitless perception, who is himself signless,
By what sign will you lead him? (180)


As already mentioned, apada is used in it's most obvious sense of "without a foot" in many places. Snakes are the most obvious example of apada. The form apadaṃ only occurs in a very few suttas. For example in the Nivāpa Sutta (MN 25) we find out that a bhikkhu in the state of first jhāna cannot be followed by Māra or his retinue. I'm going to give Ñānamoḷi & Bodhi's (Ñ&B) translation to begin with.
Ayaṃ vuccati, bhikkhave, bhikkhu andhamakāsi māraṃ, apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ adassanaṃ gato pāpimato. (MN i.159)
This bhikkhu is said to have blindfold Māra, to have become invisible to the Evil One by depriving Māra's eye of its opportunity. (Ñ&B 2001: 250-1)
The passage is repeated at AN iv.434. Now, on face value this translation is incomprehensible, because there is no word that means "opportunity". "To have become invisible to the Evil One" must translate adassanaṃ gato pāpimato.  So, "by depriving Māra's eye of its opportunity" therefore translates apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ. Mara's eye is māracakkhuṃ; vadhitvā is a gerund meaning 'having stuck, having killed' which must therefore correspond to Ñ&B's "depriving" (translating gerunds as English present participles is fine). So here apadaṃ must correspond to "of its opportunity", though it's not clear how this could work.

In these cases we usually suspect that the translators have bowed to Buddhaghosa, so the next step in following this thread is to look at the commentary. The corresponding passage in the Papañcasūdani is:
"Apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhun" ti teneva pariyāyena yathā mārassa cakkhu apadaṃ hoti nippadaṃ, appatiṭṭhaṃ, nirārammaṇaṃ, evaṃ vadhitvāti attho.  (MA 2.163)
Apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhun is a way of saying (pariyāya) that the eye of Māra is without a sign, signless, unsupported, without any basis, this is what "destroying" means.
Having pondered this for a time, I don't think it makes any more sense than the sutta passage it is commenting on. The commentary on AN iv.434 (AA 4.201) is shorter but similar:
"Apadaṃ vadhitvā"ti nippadaṃ niravasesaṃ vadhitvā.
Apadaṃ vadhitvā [means] having destroyed [Māra's eyes] completely, signlessly.  (Bodhi 2012: 1832, n.1940)
In his comparative study of the Majjhima Nikāya and Madhyamāgama, Anālayo (2011) notes another similar passage in AN 9.39. Here a monk who has attained the 8 vimokkhas (the four rūpa jhānas and four arupa āyatanas) is:
antamakāsi māraṃ, apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ, adassanaṃ  gato pāpimato
One who has blinded Māra, put out Māra's eyes without a trace, and gone beyond the sight of the Evil One. (Bodhi 2012: 1306)
Where antamakasi is almost certainly meant to be andhamakāsi "blinded" and is translated accordingly (cf. Bodhi 2012: 1831, n.1939). So, in fact, the Ñ&B translation is not based on the commentary this time, and Bodhi has opted for a completely different translation in his solo work (which is quite unusual). Here Bodhi translates apadaṃ as "without a trace" which implies completeness. I'm not convinced that this is a possible connotation of apada, however. It seems more likely that having destroyed Māra's eye, he becomes apada; he cannot see a sign.

It's quite unusual for the patient of the gerund to come after the gerund in prose. The two phrases apadaṃ vadhitvā māracakkhuṃ and adassanaṃ gato pāpimato both have 10 syllables so may have originally come from verse, though I cannot locate this verse. 

This is a very difficult idiom to understand. The idea that it is explained by "tracks" or "leaving  tracks" seems a bit far-fetched. There are three apparently unrelated uses:

  1. When as animal has no feet, it is apada
  2. When the Buddha is without craving he is apada
  3. When Māra is without sight, blinded, he is also apada

I think all three are in fact connected by an obscure metaphor which relies not on the "track" sense of pada, but on "foot". The arising of craving is what propels people towards the object of desire. If craving is the "foot" that propels people around, then the Buddha is "footless". Remember also that in Dhp 179b jitaṃ yassa no yāti koci loke "What he has won does not go anywhere in the world." It does not go anywhere (no yāti koci) because it cannot go, because the Buddha's victory (jita) has deprived it of propulsion, in this metaphor it is now apada or footless. MN 25 asks Kathañca, bhikkhave, agati mārassa ca māraparisāya ca? "Where is it that Māra and his retinue are unable to go?" Māra cannot go where he cannot see. By blinding him we render him "footless", and cannot go anywhere.

With this in mind, we can also reconsider the translation of 179c in which the Buddha is described as anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ. I followed the herd here in translating anantagocara as 'limitless perception', but I noted that gocara literally means  'range of a cow' from cara 'walking' and go 'cow'. But what's interesting here is the juxtaposition of the 'range of a cow' being limitless and a being who is footless. When Māra is footless he cannot go anywhere. When the Buddha is footless he can go anywhere. Māra represents the world "out there", the Buddha represents the world "in here", in this arm-span length of body. Being footless in the physical world is crippling. Being footless in the sense of without craving to propel us into motion opens up the "inner" world completely. Mental "feet" like craving and hatred tend to propel us away from present experience, to lead us outwards towards the object of desire, or away from the object of aversion. Cut off those feet and we stay immersed in experience.

We can also point to another reading of 179cd/180cd
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |179|
I suggested above that apadaṃ should be read as part of pada c. But. in fact. we could read it as part of pada d.
taṃ buddhaṃ anantagocaraṃ apadaṃ kena padena nessatha? |179|
The range of that awakened one is limitless
By what footpath could you lead the footless?
I think this is a superior reading. It nicely exploits the ambiguity of pada in a play on words. We get something of the flavour of it by using "footpath" to juxtapose with "footless".


Having worked through the translation, we are now in a position to deal with the question of what a "trackless one" is. He is, shall we say, a misunderstanding. However, K. R. Norman is not easily mislead, so why does "trackless one" seem like a good translations here? Pada is a complex word and often difficult to translate. There isn't really a wholly satisfactory translation of "dhammapada."  When presented with an image using pada we tend to think of the figurative uses. We are so used to taking it abstractly or figuratively that we only translate pada as "foot" only when the situation demands it. I think the combination of the word pada and the verb √ are quite persuasive. We have a combination of tracks and leading, and the link between certain beings, the Buddha, and Māra all being apada is very obscure. 

On the other hand, taking Dhp 179 and 180 together it's more obvious, though still fairly obscure, that apada refers to the Buddha's lack of craving, but we do not know why it does. One of K R Norman's observations about the philologer is that they don't simply say what a text means, they say why it means that. So the job is only half complete. The key insight emerges out of following the thread a little further and looking at the handful of other times that the word apada is used. It is only used to describe: an animal without feet; the Buddha without craving; and Māra without sight. What the last two have in common is that they do not "go" anywhere. The footless animal, i.e.. a snake, ought not to go anywhere, but somehow does. So the link is locomotion. We can extend the comparison between the snake and the Buddha. Just as a snake is able to move about without any feet, the Buddha relates to other beings without any craving and, thus, without creating any karma that must ripen. Māra, on the other hand, is crippled when made footless/blind.

Now one of the traps for translators is to slavishly translate a word with the same English word each time it occurs. As in all languages, Pāḷi words have denotations and connotations. And just as in English a Pāḷi word may have multiple denotations and multiple connotations. People with very orderly minds like to think that language should restrict one word to one meaning so as to avoid ambiguity. But, in practice, such an ideal language has probably never existed. Language always involves ambiguity. And just as well, since almost all comedy depends on it, and communal laughter is an important evolutionary adaptation to living in large groups; and a good deal of poetry also depends on it. And in the case of these verses, I think that "path" is probably the best translation of padaṃ in 179d and 180d. This suggests that the poet was aware of the all the ambiguity and was exploiting it for effect. And, in fact, if someone is footless (and in this imagery unable to physically go anywhere) then where could you lead them? Political correctness had no place in the worldview of the people who composed and preserved these verses.

My final translation, then is:
What he has won cannot be lost,
What he has won does not go anywhere in the world.
The range of that awakened one is limitless
By what footpath could you lead the footless? (179)
He has no lust, clinging, or craving,
To lead him anywhere.
The range of that awakened one is limitless
By what footpath could you lead the footless? (180)
Pāḷi texts are seldom purposefully esoteric. On the whole we can take the suttas on face value. Of course, some of the metaphors have become reified or are obscure to us, but the feeling is that the author was not trying to misdirect us, they were trying to communicate in a fairly direct manner. Sometimes verses in the Dhammapada that use obscure metaphors can seem as though they are esoteric. Considering the huge popularity of the text, it is surprisingly difficult at times. It's a text to be quite wary of, especially in translation. Even the best translations sometimes fail to plumb the depths of the Dhammapada.



Anālayo (2011) A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikāya. Vol. 1 (Introduction, Studies of Discourses 1 to 90). Dharma Drum.

Bodhi (2012) The Numerical Discourses. Wisdom.

Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi. (2001) The Middle Length Discourses. Wisdom.

Norman, K. R. (2000) The Word of the Doctrine (Dhammapada). Pali Text Society.

19 June 2015

Buddhist Shibboleths

I've already done some work on comparing translation styles between 4th century Chinese translators of the Āgamas and 20th/21st century English translators of the Pali texts (Attwood 2012). Where terms are unique or obscure the strategies available are quite limited. One can try to preserve the Indic word untranslated using your native script to represent the Indic sounds or with an Indic script such as Siddham; or one can substitute a similar word from one's own language, e.g. when the word occurs in a list of similar items (types of bird for example) one can substitute a familiar kind of bird; or, at a pinch one can ignore the difficult term; All of these approaches have their pros and cons, especially when seen in the light of centuries of hindsight. 

But we have some problems with more familiar common words as well. I've been thinking about some of the common epithets of the founder of Buddhist: buddha, tathāgata, sugata, arhat, and bhagavat. These words are devilish to translate into natural sounding English. We end up with a string of phrases in the form "The X One" and/or with meaningless literal translations like "the Thus Gone" or "the Well Gone". None of these work very well as translations. The translations don't convey any more information than the untranslated terms, so add nothing to the comprehension of the text. A phrase like "Thus Gone" still requires translation to be comprehensible. With a translation like "Thus Gone" we might actually be worse off because whereas we might pass over the untranslated tathāgata without much thought, when we see the English words "Thus Gone" we may be tempted to stop and think about them and tie our selves in knots trying to figure what they mean.


The most successful of the standard translations is probably "the Blessed One" for bhagavat. We're still in awkward territory with the phrasing but at least it conveys something of the Indic and evokes an image in the Western mind. To be blessed, in English, is to have the grace of God, often bestowed by a priest, or to have good luck. Neither of which apply here. The word bhaga comes from the root √bhaj 'to divide, to share' and means 'a share'. The suffix vat or vant (Skt or Pali) indicates possession. So bhagavat means 'one who has their share'. In an earlier essay I explored how Buddhaghosa explained what the word means: see Yāska, Plato, and Sound Symbolism (2008).

Apparently, bhagavat is originally a military term meaning one who has a share in the spoils of war; or a feudal term for a lord is entitled to a share of his vassals production (the forerunner of taxation). Hence, perhaps, many older texts translate bhagavat as "Lord" (though this might also be imitation of the King James Bible). In the Buddhist context we sometimes also see it translated as the "Fortunate One", again with the suggestion of good luck - and the Buddha's awakening was nothing to do with luck! But "blessed" is a good one word translation. We have an English name from the Latin benedictus meaning "blessed" which is Benedict.

One of the tricks that English linguists have when they want to mark a word as serious or sacred is to either use a Latin form or to Latinise it. Thus where Freud wrote in the vernacular about the Ich, Es and Über-Ich the English translators adopted the Latin words ego, id, and super-ego. In becoming Latin the word acquires a substance so that we all think of "the ego" as a thing nowadays even though Freud conceived of it as a process. Such a word also acquires the gravitas of medical terminology since doctors still prefer Latin, or Latinate, to Anglo-Saxon or vulgar (i.e. common) terms for body parts and processes.Of course Germans capitalise all nouns, but the capitalisation of Ego, etc. helped to reinforce this perception.

Another trick, widely employed by Buddhist translators is to adopt Sanskrit syntax for English words. Thus we see the creation of a Buddhist Hybrid English that employs Sanskrit word order, but it is done in imitation of the 17th century King James Bible. As in "Say not so, Ānanda, say not so" for mā hevaṃ, ānanda, mā hevaṃ or "Enlightenment" (capitalised) for bodhi. Likewise Chinese translators created a Buddhist hybrid Chinese (based on Middle Chinese) which retained Indic word order. 

It is true that vulgar English has moved away from Latin forms, if only because the teaching of Latin, which used to be a universal part of education, has fallen away. Where once every educated person was familiar with the Latin and Greek classics in the original, nowadays such knowledge is rare. And yet here we are trying to introduce Sanskrit and Pali words into the language. One might argue that "Benedictus" conveys both the meaning and spirit of the Bhagavat at least as well as "the Lord" or "the Blessed One". However for some the use of Latin is tied to experience of the Catholic Church rather than Horace or Virgil.

The standard Chinese translation is 世尊 world-honoured, i.e. honoured by the world. I'm much less familiar with the history of these Chinese terms. 

Tathāgata & Sugata

Tathāgata and sugata may really be untranslatable and the common translations are all quite hopeless in that they communicate nothing. Indeed Buddhists may long have misunderstood the meaning of these words. Richard Gombrich has pointed out that -gata at the end of a compound means 'relating to, existing in'. Some examples include:
  • antar-gata - in the middle
  • kaṇṭha-gata - reaching the throat
  • guru-gata - belonging to a particular teacher
  • nīca-gata - at the lowest point
  • bhūmi-gata - fallen to earth, on the ground
  • mukha-gata - in the mouth, in the face
  • hṛdaya-gata - dwelling in the heart
Of course it can also take the more obvious meaning of a past passive participle, i.e. 'gone', but the special meaning has some advantages. Tathā is a modal adjectival pronoun: 'thus, that way, in that manner, like that'. We can see where the more usual translations of tathāgata might have come from: he is 'one who has gone in that way'. However tathā-gata might also mean something like 'one who resides in that state', i.e. one who is awakened. Paul Harrison's Vajracchedikā translation uses Realised One for this term, which I quite like. Some consider that there an ambiguity with tathāgata because it might also result from tathā-āgata where āgata means 'come'. I think this is pretty unlikely, especially given the unambiguous sugata, but some lineages see it as the primary sense of the word and in this sense it is translated as "Thus Come". Chinese texts translate tathāgata as 如來 "as come". Even if this were the meaning, what does a reader make of "The Thus Come One"? 

Similarly su is a prefix meaning 'complete, well, or good' (cognate with Greek eu- which comes into English as euphony, euphemism, euphonium etc.). Sugata then means 'completed, one who is well, in a good state'. The fashion at present is to leave these two epithets untranslated and perhaps to footnote the most common interpretation of the Indic. The standard translations of "the Thus Gone" and "the Well Gone" really don't communicate anything. There is a Latin word which has more or less the same meaning as sugata which is beatus from which we get words like beatify. Beatus carries the connotation of blessed, but also of happiness. When a person is "beatified" (beatus + facere 'to make') by the Catholic Church, the first step on path to sainthood, the implication is that they are even now experiencing eternal bliss. This is also the implication of sugata. I know one woman called Beata, and I suspect it's a relatively common name in some Slavic/Catholic countries.

Sugata is translated into Chinese as 善逝 'well gone'. Where the character 善 is also used for Sanskrit words like kalyāṇa (beautiful), kuśala (expert, wholesome), and śubha (lovely, beautiful). Apparently they could not make up their minds where the Buddha was coming  or going ! In a weird quirk of history 逝 now means 'dead, passed away' in Mandarin. So in modern Chinese 善逝 means 'well dead'.


The other common epithet is arhat (Skt) or arahant (Pali). This is from the verbal root √arh which means 'to be worthy, to have a claim, to be able, to be allowed'. The present participle arhat (Pali arahant) means 'worthy, capable, entitled, deserving'. According to PED it was used in pre-Buddhist times as an honorific for those in high office, similar to 'His Worship', and in a sense very close in meaning to bhagavat (one who is entitled to a share). We might think of it as referring to someone who has claimed to have done what needed to be done in the holy life (brahmacārya) which is how it is often phrased in the texts. The arhat is effectively a 'saint' from Latin sanctus 'holy, consecrated'.

There is a folk etymology for arhat as well. This derives the word from ari-√han 'to strike an/the enemy' or sometimes 'foe-destroyer'. This etymology was given a boost by Richard Gombrich, who has has argued that the present participle is "jarring" in this context and there is perfectly good adjective from the same root, i.e. araha. Since Jains used two Prakrit forms of the word arahanta and arihanta, the folk etymology may well be the correct etymology, Gombrich argues that this stems from the same metaphor as the Jain title "jina" or conqueror, from which jaina means 'connected with the jina' (2009: 57-8).

The Chinese term is 阿羅訶 which is a transliteration pronounced āluóhē or 阿羅漢 āluóhàn. It is perhaps best known in the abbreviated form 羅漢 luóhàn.

Saṁbuddha and Samyaksaṁbuddha

Perhaps the most difficult to translate when used an an epithet is samyaksaṁbuddha. Samyañc means 'accord, concord, agreement' (literally 'bending together'). My understanding of this term is that it refers to the being in sync with the way things are (and its opposite mithyā means to be out of sync).  Saṁ means 'complete, together' and buddha as we know is the past participle of √budh 'to know, to understand, to wake up to'. So saṁbuddha means something like 'fully cognisant'. And samyaksaṁbuddha means 'fully cognisant of the way things are' though it is usually translated as "fully and perfectly awakened", where samyañc is somewhat reduced in significance to just mean 'perfectly', which plays to Romantic tendencies in Buddhism.

As often happens there are many different Chinese translations of this term: 正徧知 or 正遍知 or 正等覺. We also find partial transliterations such as: 三耶三佛 sānyésānfó and 三耶三佛陀 sānyésānfótuó where 佛 is a translation of Buddha and 三耶三 transliterates saṃyak-saṃ-. 

Epithets and Titles

Clearly these epithets fall somewhere between names and titles. An epithet is something which is "put on" from the Greek epi 'in addition' + tithenai "to put". A name we hang on something. Sometimes we resort to epithets because the name of the person concerned is taboo. The Buddha seems to have forbidden his disciples from using his personal name (Ariyapariyesanā Sutta). An epithet might also be used when a person's name is prosaic and followers wish to highlight some aspect of their character or recall some event or achievement. All of these seem to apply to the Buddha. 

It is interesting to compare the ecclesiastical titles adopted by Tibetan priests in exile. Amongst the Tibetans we find a variety of His Holinesses and His Eminences. In fact these come from the Roman Catholic Church. A Pope is addressed as His Holiness or Your Holiness, and a Cardinal as His/Your Eminence. If we were also to ape the Catholics then the most common form of address to the Buddha would be, bhagavan (vocative case) = Your Holiness. But these titles are finely tuned to indicate hierarchies and to indicate power and subordination. They now have a medieval ring to them which no longer trips of the tongue (though arguably the Tibetan priesthood get on very well with them). Roman ecclesiastical titles are surely inappropriate to the Buddha, if not to Tibetan priests, and got quite a strong negative reaction when I tried them out on a few friends. The words under discussion are not really titles anyway. In fact they're adjectives rather than nouns and they all describe someone who has had a particular kind of life changing experience.

Other forms of address are routinely taken over from ecclesiastic or temporal hierarchies. For example "Venerable" seems to substitute for āyuṣmat 'possessing life, vital, long lived, elder'. Buddhist monks are routinely referred to as "The Venerable". In the FPMT I've met the Venerable Robina Courtin and the Venerable George Churinoff for example. The word "venerable" comes from the Latin venerari "to worship, revere" and means 'fit to be worshipped or revered'. No doubt some monks are fit to be worshipped, but it's a rather grand title unrelated to the Indic term for an elder. In early times Europeans were more automatically respectful towards their elders, nowadays hardly anyone commands respect. 

Buddha is of course an Anglicised term and hardly needs much explanation, though too many people mistake him for the Chinese god 布袋 Bùdài the so called "Laughing Buddha". For new-comers the epithets are inevitably odd and difficult to understand. And when they ask questions it quickly becomes apparent that no one really knows what they mean. No one does any more. And yet we have to keep repeating these words because they crop up so often in the texts. 

Whether Latin words would aid or hinder us in communicating our history and ideas is moot. No doubt some people recoil at the very thought of using archaic Latin to communicate modern Buddhism, and for others it invokes the Catholic Church, though personally I find I associate Latin mainly with medicine, the Romans, and early Enlightenment writers such as Newton's Principia Mathematica and Hooke's Micrographia. And yet on the whole Pali and Sanskrit are more archaic and foreign to the ear than Latin or Greek. I find that most of my colleagues want to use English (or their mother tongue) most of the time and only use the minimum of Indian jargon. Most cannot tell the difference between Sanskrit and Pali.

On the other hand, English is a language which is more than happy to borrow words from other languages. For example from Hindi we borrowed: shampoo, pyjamas and bangle; or from Persian: caravan, divan, ghoul, jackal and shawl. However the problem here is that most of these are concrete nouns. They have a specific referent and there is no doubt what they refer to.

I don't really see any resolution to the problem of translating the epithets. They all apply specifically to the Buddha (though some are borrowed from other contexts), but the specific meaning is long lost. So we're left with all these different ways of referring to the Buddha, none of which really convey anything meaningful to anyone any more that forced to retain them because they are traditional. They only value they have nowadays is as shibboleths, i.e. the ability to pronounce these terms is a marker of Buddhist identity. 


Attwood, Jayarava. Translation Strategies for the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta and its Chinese Counterparts. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. Vol 5, 2012.
Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox. 

06 January 2012

The Son of the Śākyas

Scythian Horseman
Lessing Photo Archive
IN 2009 WHEN I WAS writing about the name of the Buddha I mentioned in passing that some people thought that marriage customs attributed to the Buddha's family in the Pāli Commentarial tradition pointed to the Buddha being Dravidian rather than Aryan. Someone asked for references and at the time I didn't have them to hand. So three years later I'm interested in this again...

The idea seems to go back at least to 1923 when A. M. Hocart tried to use observations from the traditional genealogies Śākyas and Koliyas to explain the relationship between the Buddha and his cousin Devadatta (Cited in Emeneau 1939: 220). The story of the origins of the Śākyas (Pāli Sakya) is found in several places, but particularly the Ambaṭṭha Sutta (DN 3). "The Śākyans regard King Okkāka as their ancestor" (Walsh 1995: 114). This story itself is explored in more detail by Silk (1973). In the version in the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī (the 5th century CE Theravāda commentary on the Dīgha Nikāya) there is some evidence that cross-cousin marriage occurred at the origin of the Śākya and Koliya clans (Emeneau 1939: 222). In addition there are extensive genealogies in the Mahāvaṃsa which show cross-cousin marriages (Trautman 1973: 158-160).

A cross cousin marriage is one in which a boy would marry his mother's brother's daughter, or a girl would marry her father's sister's son. This is one of the preferred matches in South India amongst the Dravidian speaking peoples, and also practised in Sri Lanka. However Good (1996) has been critical of the idea that cross-cousin marriage is the only or most preferred kin relationship, and shows that other marriage matches are made. Be that as it may, cross-cousin marriage is a feature of South Indian kinship, and the Brahmanical law books (the Dharmasūtras) make it clear that cousin marriage is forbidden for Aryas. (Thapar 2010: 306). The perception, then is that if the Buddha's family practised cross-cousin marriage, they cannot have been Aryas and were likely Dravidians.

Already in 1939 Emeneau saw the main flaw in the argument. The earliest sources we have for these propositions are Theravāda commentarial texts. They were written in about the 5th century CE in Sri Lanka. To a great extent they reflect the society of 5th century Sri Lanka. Indeed there is no corroborating evidence from the suttas or Vinaya that cross-cousin marriage took place at all. The obvious conclusion is that when the authors of the Mahāvaṃsa and the commentaries upon which the Sumaṅgalavilāsinī was based sat down to compose a genealogy for the Buddha they used familiar figures from the old texts, but arranged them in a way which seemed natural. In other words they unselfconsciously modelled the Buddha's family on their own. So I concur with Emeneau that the story is not plausible.

In my essay on the Buddha's name I posed the problem of the Buddha having a Brahmin gotra name. The gotra name was a paternal lineage name which in the case of Gautama stretches back to the Ṛgveda. Gotama, the ancestor of the Gautama clan, complied the 4th book of the Ṛgveda and is mentioned in several sūktas. [1] The Gautama clan continued to be prominent before, during and after the time of the Buddha, for example the name appears in lineages in the (pre-Buddhist) Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and there is a (post-Asoka) Gautama Dharmasūtra.

Some authors have suggested that the name Gautama was adopted by the Śākyas from their purohita (hierophant, or ritual master). (Kosambi 1967: 37; Karve in Patil 1973: 42). This appears to be based on a later tradition whereby a kṣatriya king would adopt the gotra name of his purohita. The implication is that the Buddha's father Suddhodana must have employed a Brahmin purohita. This suggestion has several weaknesses. Firstly there is no mention of any Brahmins in relation to the Buddha's family in the earlier texts - later on we do find a Brahmin in the court, but he is part of a hugely elaborated hagiography in which the Buddha walks and talks immediately after being born. During the time of the Buddha the Brahmins were a presence but not a dominant presence. Secondly although Suddhodana is called a rāja and this is usually interpreted as king in later hagiographies, in the context of the Śākya tribe it was probably more akin to 'chief' or 'head man'. Thirdly the Buddha never has a good word to say about Brahmin ritualists, and often has bad words to say about them - he likens them to dogs in the Aṅguttara Nikāya. The Buddha's attitude, especially with respect to class (varṇa) or caste (jāti) is often taken as evidence that the Śākyas found the is often taken as indicating they these were novel ideas that he found peculiar. Finally the tradition itself is attested in the "post-epic period" (Karve in Patil 1973: 42), and it seems very likely that the compilation of the Epics out of the pre-existing oral traditions was at least partly a response to the success of Buddhism.

Although the Buddha is almost always represented as a kṣatriya I see no sign in the Pāli texts that he felt he lacked prestige such that taking a Brahmin name would improve it. There is also no hint of it happening further back in his line. In fact neither the Buddha's father nor any of his male relatives, is ever called Gautama in the suttas. So on the whole this idea of adopting a Brahmin gotra seems unlikely to me.

Very few other Gautamas are met with in Pāli. However both the Buddha's mother (Māyā, or Māyadevī) and his aunt (Mahāprajāpatī) are called Gotamī. The simplest explanation is that the Buddha was a Gautama on his mother's side, and that like several other male figures in the Pāli Canon—notably Śāriputra, the son (putra) of (his mother) Rūpasārī—the Buddha went by his mother's gotra name. I plan a longer essay pulling all this together with a more in-depth argument, but this is an outline and shows the kinds of sources that the ideas draw on.

One more note on the Śākyas. For many years sensible people have been telling overly enthusiastic amateurs that the Indian name for the Scythians (Śaka) is only similar to the name Śākya by coincidence. Recently I found some rough notes on an Indology forum by Harvard Professor Michael Witzel who's work I hold in very high regard. Witzel says that the similarity is not a coincidence, though we still have the solid historical fact that the Śaka did not enter Indian until 140 CE. However he also suggests that the Śākyas, like the Mallas, Licchavis, Vṛjis and other tribes that are found in Great Magadha were not originally from there but migrated only shortly before the lifetime of the Buddha.
"The Malla are a Rajasthan desert tribe in Jaiminiya Brahmana, and are still known on the Middle Indus as Malloi in Alexander's time."
Witzel suggests Iranian links for the Śākyas including their building of funeral mounds (aka stūpas), the names of some of their kings, marriage patterns (based on the origin story in the Ambaṭṭha Sutta [DN 3] and elsewhere, which is better attested than cross-cousin marriage), and also
"Then there also is the new idea of weighing one’s guilt after death. This was first an Egyptian, then a Zoroastrian and Iranian concept. It is connected with the idea of personal responsibility for one’s action (karma). "
The latter is very intriguing indeed. Some of this material, has made it into Witzel's published oeuvre, but it has yet to receive a detailed treatment. Long time readers may recall that I have noted some Persian Influences in Buddhism (20.6.08), and this seems to make the case quite a lot stronger. I would just add that a lot of crazy stuff can be found on the internet regarding the Scythians, and most of it cannot be taken seriously. We even find the suggestions that the Buddha was a Scythian or an Iranian, which are facile. Whatever their origins the Śākyas had lived in India for probably 500 years before the Buddha, and were thoroughly naturalised Indians with very little memory of their background.


  1. There is a potential confusion here. In Sanskrit the ancestor's name is Gotama (he who has the most cows). When the word becomes an adjective describing those associated with Gotama the root vowel o is stretched (vṛddhi) to become au. So Gautama means 'of or associated with Gotama. However in Pāli the vowel au is condensed back down to o, so Gautama becomes Gotama. We need to distinguish between Gotama the Ṛṣi of the Vedas (in Sanskrit), and Gotama the Buddha (in Pāli).

  • Emeneau, M. B. 1939. 'Was There Cross-Cousin Marriage among the Śākyas?' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 59( 2): 220-226.
  • Good, Anthony. 1990. 'On the Non-Existence of "Dravidian Kinship".' Edinburgh Papers In South Asian Studies. 6. Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Edinburgh.
  • Kosambi, D. D. 1967. 'The Vedic "Five Tribes".' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 87 (1): 33-39.
  • Patil, Sharad. 1973. 'Some Aspects of Matriarchy in Ancient India: Clan Mother to Tribal Mother.' Social Scientist. 2 (4): 42-58.
  • Silk, Jonathan A. 2008. 'Incestuous Ancestries: The Family Origins of Gautama Siddhārtha, Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 20:12, and The Status of Scripture in Buddhism.' History of Religions. 47 (4): 253-281.
  • Thapar, Romila. 2010. Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations. 2nd Rev. ed. Orient Blackswan.
  • Trautmann, Thomas R. 1973 'Consanguineous Marriage in Pali Literature.' Journal of the American Oriental Society. 93(2): 158-180.
  • Walsh, Maurice. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Dīgha Nikāya. Wisdom Publications.

01 July 2011

The Buddha's Biography

I'VE ALREADY WRITTEN quite a lot on the confusion surrounding the name of the Buddha, and concluded that we don't really know what his name was. More recently I was pondering the Buddha's biography and considering the two different accounts of his going forth: the familiar elaborate version in which a princely man aged 29 who leaves behind wealth, status, wife, child, and family; and the shorter, less detailed, and probably less familiar story found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta [MN 26], but corroborated in other places. Scholars seem to agree that the biography found in the Ariyapariyesanā represents a more primitive version of the story which is likely to predate the more elaborate version. It's a given that the life stories of famous people tend to become more elaborate with time, not less, especially post-mortem. I'm sure many Buddhists will be surprised to discover that there are two different stories, as the more elaborate version is usually presented as a more or less factual, historical account.

Whether or not the Ariyapariyesanā version is the original story we will probably never know. But it provides a valuable insight into how the legend of the Buddha grew after his death. The process is no different from other saintly figures in other cultures and times. It's a case of the medium is the message: the common outlines of hagiographies tell us more about human nature than the content of such stories tell us about the historical Buddha. I want to look at just one paragraph from this earlier, less elaborate biography and draw out the implications it has for our stories about the Buddha.
So kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, aparena samayena daharova samāno susukāḷakeso, bhadrena yobbanena samannāgato paṭhamena vayasā akāmakānaṃ mātāpitūnaṃ assumukhānaṃ rudantānaṃ kesamassuṃ ohāretvā kāsāyāni vatthāni acchādetvā agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajiṃ. [M i.163]

At a later time, though still only a boy, with much black hair, in the first stage of life, and endowed with youth and good fortune; with my mother and father unwilling, tearful and wailing, I cut off my hair and beard, donned brown robes, and went forth from home, into homelessness.
I don't think it's overstating things to say that this is one of the most important biographical passages in the whole canon, because here much of what we think we know about the Buddha is contradicted.

Let's begin with his age. The text reinforces his young age with several terms: dahara, yobbana and paṭhama vaya. The word dahara means 'little, a young boy, a youth'. Buddhaghosa glosses it with taruṇa 'a tender young age, esp. a young calf'. The second word, yobbana, also means 'a youth'. The phrase paṭhama vaya means in 'the first stage of life', as opposed to middle age and old age. However the text also says he shaves off hair and beard (kesa-massuṃ ohāretvā) and this is common to all of the various narratives of the Buddha's going forth. Unless this is simply a stock phrase the youth must have passed puberty, and had a year or two to grow a beard. But not much more: if we were to describe a grown man as 'a boy' or 'a youth' it would seem awkward at best. I think we could say that this is describing a youth of 15 or 16. The tradition later made him 29, which is into middle-age by the standards of the day. Why 29? I don't think anyone knows, but it is interesting that the Jain leader, Mahāvīra, an elder contemporary of the Buddha, is described as a prince of Magadha who left home aged 30.

Something which is noticeable for being absent here is any mention of wife and child. The youth here is apparently not married. His parents weep and wail as he leaves, but not his wife. In my opinion the whole story of a wife and child is a later fiction, as is everything associated with them, including stories about Rāhula (who calls their child 'fetter'?). Many people are disturbed by the idea that the young bodhisatta left behind a wife and child. Of course had they existed they would not have been trapped in a neurotic nuclear family like most of us, but would have been part of a large extended family, and if we believe the stories they were wealthy and privileged. They were certainly not alone, nor destitute, and Gotama's role in the raising of his infant, and in the day to day life of his wife would most likely have been minimal in any case. I've never had a problem with young aspirant leaving wealth and family to pursue the deathless, because in the story he returns liberated and frees his family from suffering forever. One must take the story as a whole. But this whole story is a probably a fiction anyway.

Another interesting thing about this passage is that his mother and father -- mātāpita -- are unwilling witnesses to his leaving. He doesn't sneak out at night, there is no servant, no horse, none of the rich symbolism of later times. Notice in particular that his mother is present. The Buddha's mother seems not to have died in childbirth in this account. The stories of her death were presumably part of some important legendary strand that is not unlike the sanctity attached to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though early Buddhists rejected most notions of Brahmanical ritual purity this is not true of later Buddhists. For example in the eighth century Śāntideva wrote:
If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth? [Bodhicaryāvatā ch8 8 v.59; translation by Skilton & Crosby]
This reflects Brahmanical notions of the polluting nature of bodily fluids, which with the Brahmanisation of the subcontinent, became pan-Indian concerns. The Buddha himself is shown to mock the Brahmins for this attitude in the Agañña Sutta (DN 27.4). He says their creation myth (Ṛgveda 10.90) which tells that the Brahmins were born from the mouth of Brahmā is a lie, since they were born in the usual way -- with all the implications of ritual pollution that entailed in the Brahmins own belief system. So in the later stories the Buddha is not born from his mother's (polluted and polluting) vagina covered in amniotic fluid and other nasty substances, but miraculously and pollution free from her side. And then she, rather too conveniently, dies and is transported to heaven where she can not cast any doubt on the sanctity of the Buddha himself. One is reminded of those 1950's and 60's American sitcoms that featured a family without a mother, ostensibly to play down the subject of where children come from. If indeed this represents a Brahmanical spin, then we can observe that the Brahmanisation of India was not completed until after the reign of Aśoka, ca. 2nd century BCE, about 150 years after the most likely date Buddha's death, which may give us a limit for dating these stories.

Finally observe that when he leaves the bodhisatta dons robes (vatthāni) which are brown (kāyāsa). It's well known that the wanderers of the day would stain the cloth of their simple robes with dirt to make them unattractive to bandits. The samaṇas who didn't go naked did not originally wear elaborate robes, or use expensive fabrics (unlike many Buddhist monks these days) but the cheapest cloth, or even rags, stained with dirt. The word kāyāsa means 'brown', but is often interpreted as 'yellow'. I think the latter is because of the brightly coloured robes that many modern Theravādins wear. PED links kāyāsa to Sanskrit śyāma 'dark' which can mean anything from black to dark blue or green; or śyāva 'dark brown, brown'. Neither of which suggest yellow, orange or red! There is a direct cognate kāṣāya but PED says this is a Sanskritisation of a Pāli word, and in any case it also means 'brown, or reddish-brown'. So the word means 'brown, dark', except in the context of bhikkhu's robes. Which suggests that changes in the colour of the robes lead to the change in meaning of the word in this specific context.

Though it is not related to this particular text, there is another little oddity about the way we see the Buddha. All of the early literature describes the Buddha as having a shaved head, and cutting of his hair and beard, as I have already mentioned is a central part of all of the Buddhist biographies of the Buddha. And yet more or less all images of the Buddha show him with tightly curled hair. Eisel Mazard goes into this puzzling discontinuity in some depth in an essay entitled The Buddha was Bald. I think Mazard makes a mountain from a mole hill (he seems to see depicting the Buddha with hair as a sinister conspiracy to defraud us), but it does confirm that the popular conception of the Buddha has changed over time, and that earlier versions of his life story get over-written.

So this 'man', who's name we are unsure of, was probably a 16 year old, unmarried youth when he left his (still living) mother and father, against their wishes. And this is not so far fetched really. Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), with whom there are other biographical parallels, was this age when he left his home to go forth. Sangharakshita was about this age when he had his first mystical experiences also, and had be been living in India at the time might have wandered off at that point (as it was he had to wait 6 years to go forth aged 22.).

It's probably meaningless to talk about the "historical Buddha". I forget now where I first came across the distinction, but I like to see the information we do have as pertaining to the traditional or legendary Buddha. The historical Buddha is lost in the mists of time, though it seems very likely that the traditional Buddha is based on an historical person. Another important character, the mythic Buddha, is a product of our imaginations - which is not a criticism, or a pejorative. I think myth -- a word I use in the same spirit as Joseph Campbell -- is very important and significant aspect of our traditions. Myths are vital for a living spiritual tradition. I've written about how a much later figure went from being an historical figure, to a legendary one, and finally attained to the mythic dimension as a kind of Avalokiteśvara-like figure who intercedes to ensure one gets into the pureland. (see: Kūkai: Buddhist Hero of Japan.)

Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India documents the way that the Buddha's life story became the archetype for stories of later Buddhist saints, with the biographical details being recapitulated throughout history. And indeed the same thing has happened in other world religions. There is no reason to think this process began with the Buddha, or that the biographies that have come down to us are not influenced by his predecessors even if they are even less clearly visible than he himself is.

Across cultures saints often share common features. It would be interesting for instance to compare the Buddha with St. Francis of Assisi. This is not to devalue the methods of Buddhism, or of religion generally. Though I am not in favour of superstition, I think there are remarkable people who rise above the ordinary concerns of the rest of us: saints, for want of a better word. And these people leave us with a legacy of alternatives to: "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes. Leviathan. Chap. 13, para. 9).

In writing on this subject, critically and even polemically, I ask readers to opt for an honest confrontation with history, rather than a dishonest collusion with either tradition or secular humanism. The former blinds us and leaves us mired in eternalistic superstition, and the latter urges us to lives of nihilistic mediocrity. One of the main ideas communicated by the biography of the Buddha is that we do not have to accept either common superstitions or the general consensus; nor do we have to accept ourselves as we are, as limited and earth bound. We can be free. However the confrontation with history can be painful as it challenges our beliefs and calls into question aspects of our religious faith. I think in the end this makes us stronger, and forces us to focus less on belief and ideology, and more on practical matters, i.e. on doing the practices. Everything changes, and it seems very likely indeed that the stories we tell of the Buddha have changed too.