Showing posts with label Gandharva. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Gandharva. Show all posts

09 January 2015

Gandharva and the Buddhist Afterlife. Part II

In part one of this two-part essay we explored parts of the Brahmanical literature—i.e. the Vedas, Epics and Purāṇas—looking for precedents that might explain the dual nature of the gandharva in Buddhist literature. What we found, with some difficulty, was that precedents do exist in the Epic and Purāṇic texts, but that these only relate to the gandharva qua minor god, especially as celestial musician, and not to any role in conception. Despite the enthusiasm of modern commentators for imagining connections, it seems that the gandharva's role in conception is a Buddhist innovation with no roots in the existing mythology of India. Thus we will have to look closely at the textual tradition to see if we can say why such an innovation was necessary and why it took the form it did. 

Note that in Pali the word is spelled gandhabba (Sanskrit
rva regularly becomes assimilated to Pali bba). I'll use the Pali when specifically referring to Pali texts, but the Sanskrit for other purposes.

Gandharva in the Suttas and Sūtras

Gandhabba is fairly frequently mentioned in the Pali Canon. Almost always in the sense of a celestial musician and only seldom with respect to rebirth. The Dictionary of Pali Proper Names sums up the former sense:
"A class of semi-divine beings who inhabit the Cātummahārājika [Four Great Kings] realm and are the lowest among the devas (DN ii.212). They are generally classed together with the Asuras and the Nāgas (E.g., AN iv.200, 204, 207). Beings are born among them as a result of having practised the lowest form of sīla (DN ii.212, 271).
It is a disgrace for a monk to be born in the Gandhabba-world (DN ii.221, 251, 273f.). The Gandhabbas are regarded as the heavenly musicians, and Pañcasikha, Suriyavaccasā and her father Timbarū are among their number (DN ii.264)." [Online]
Pañcasikha ('five crests') is sometimes linked to the Mahāyāna bodhisattva Mañjuśṛī. The reference to him in the Sakkapañha Sutta (DN ii.263) is to pañcasikhaṃ gandhabba-devaputtaṃ; where deva-putta is literally 'son of the devas'. Indeed the Gandhabba Saṃyutta (SN 10) describes devas of the gandhabba group (gandhabbakāyikā devā); compare the use of kāyika (belonging to a kāya or group; compare with manomayakāya), where in Brahmanical texts deavs and gandharvas are always distinct. Gandhabbas may also live in fragrant parts of trees, i.e. roots, heartwood, softwood, bark, shoots, leaves, flowers, fruits, sap, and gandhagandhe or fragrant smells (SN 10.1). A virtuous person can be born amongst them simply by wishing it and by giving fragrant gifts (SN 10.2). In the Mahāsamaya Sutta (DN 20 PTS: D ii 257) one of the four great kings (caturmahārājā), Dhataraṭṭha (Skt Dhṛtarāṣṭra), king of the East, is lord of the gandhabbas (gandhabbānaṃ adhipati); similarly in the DN 32 Āṭānāṭā Sutta (DN iii.196-8). Gandharvas are associated with the sky. In the Aṅguttara Nikāya gandharvas are referred to as 'sky-goers' vihaṅgamo (AN ii.38); another name for a bird is vihaṅgo (viha 'sky' + ga < √gam 'go').

Thus for the most part the gandhabbas are simply minor gods, not unlike nāgas or yakṣas, somewhat reminiscent of the Epic gandharva. However in the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta (MN 38; i.255-6) we have this very important, much discussed, passage:
Tiṇṇaṃ kho pana, bhikkhave, sannipātā gabbhassāvakkanti hoti... Yato ca kho, bhikkhave, mātāpitaro ca sannipatitā honti, mātā ca utunī hoti, gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti
Bhikkhus, when three come together there is entry of the embryo (gabbha)... and they are: the mother and father come together; the mother is in season; and a gandhabba is present.
The Madhyāgama version of this text is titled 嗏帝經 (= Sāti SūtraMĀ 201), Sāti being the main protagonist in the text, and this āgama being the product of a Sarvāstivāda sect.
Note: the CBETA Taishō edition of the Chinese Tripiṭaka has [口*荼] 帝經 instead. The formula [口*荼] is for a Chinese character that has not been included in the Unicode standard yet (see right); nor is it found in modern standard dictionaries. This is a regular problem for digitising ancient Chinese texts that include archaic characters. In this case the archaic character appears to be an ancient typo, since the Taishō footnotes here say that the Song, Yuan, and Ming editions have 嗏 instead and this seems to be correct. The character 嗏 was/is not in general use, but was designed at the time to represent the Sanskrit sound . My thanks to Sujato and Rod Bucknell of Sutta Central for help with this problem. 
The Chinese text says:
(T 1.26 769.b23-4)
Furthermore, three items combine to enter a woman's womb. Father and mother must come together in one place; the mother is fully able and ready to bear [a child]; a gandharva has already arrived.
What we notice here is that the role of the gandharva is not stated. All it says is that a gandharva must be present: Pāḷi paccupaṭṭhito, Ch 已至. The Pāḷi verb paṭi-upa√sthā can also mean 'attend, wait on', but here (and elsewhere) it takes the form of a passive past participle with an auxiliary copular 'to be' in the present indicative. Clearly the translators of MĀ, in choosing 至, understood this in terms of presence as well. And the character 已 indicating a completed action, which suggests they read the past participle as having a present perfect sense: has arrived; has waited upon.

A gandharva is in attendance or present, but the suttas do not say for what purpose. There is nothing here, for example, to suggest that this is not a celestial musician hovering around making sweet music, or euphemistically putting the juice in the soma (referring to RV 9.113.3 mentioned in Part I). Simply being present is not a very active or involved role. The only reason we take the role to be a more active one—a being in waiting—is that this is the traditional reading. For example in Buddhaghosa's commentary he glosses gandhabba as tatrūpagasatto 'a being (satta) arriving there'. And "Paccupaṭṭhito hoti" as:
na mātāpitūnaṃ sannipātaṃ olokayamāno samīpe ṭhito paccupaṭṭhito nāma hoti. Kammayantayantito pana eko satto tasmiṃ okāse nibbattanako hotīti ayam ettha adhippāyo.  (Papañcasūdani ii.310)
It doesn't mean 'stood by as the mother and father come together'; but, what was intended was, that a being is about to be reborn, set in motion by the mechanisms of kamma.
However, the role of the gandharva is never mentioned in canonical texts. 

As Anālayo (2008) notes, the Ekottarāgama partial counterpart to this sutta (EĀ 21.3) "does not employ the term gandhabba, but instead speaks of the external consciousness." Here the Chinese term is 外識, where 識 stands for vijñāna. There is no match for 外識 in the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, so we just have to take it on face value: it is the vijñāna that is outside 外, which we presume means 'not yet joined the embryo'. (Setting aside from now the physiology of embryonic development). This suggests that someone must die at just the right moment, when the parents have sex and the mother is ovulating for conception to take place. Though why Buddhists would use the term gandharva for this is not clear either in Buddhist texts or in the secondary literature. The EĀ is probably a late product of a Mahāsāṃghika Sect, which seemingly did not believe in an antarābhava

The same Pāli passage from MN 38 is repeated in the Assalāyana Sutta (MN 93; ii.157). Here, seven Brahmin seers go to visit the Buddha and are challenged on their view that Brahmins are the highest social class. It is their view that three things are required for conception, one of them being a gandhabba. Their problem is that they don't know the social class of the gandhabba, and so in the Buddha's argument there is no continuity with their ancestors, and they cannot even be sure of their own lineage. This association of the view with Brahmins may be significant and I will return to this point.

This single passage, repeated at MN 38 and 93, seems to be the basis for the idea that the gandharva is a kind of spirit or soul which links a dead person with a newly conceived person. The Theravāda Abhidhamma view is that such a vehicle is unnecessary, or in fact forbidden, and yet the commentaries accept the idea of a being (satta) waiting to be reborn (MNA i.481f ); while at other times the suttas insist that a being is only ever a convenient fiction for a collection of khandhas (cf. the Vajira Sutta). Anālayo is at pains to explain that the Buddha's use of the term does not imply "substantialist notions" (97). On the contrary, I think that there is a substantialist notion in the interpretation of the "presence" of the gandharva. The way that some modern Buddhist writers interpret gandharva certainly seems to imply a substantial (i.e. real) being. The gandharva conceived of as a being-in-waiting appears to be a contradiction of basic Buddhist metaphysics, and is certainly a contradiction in terms of Abhidhamma.

MN 38 and 93 are often read in conjunction with another passage from DN 15 (ii.63:).
‘Viññāṇapaccayā nāmarūpa’nti iti kho panetaṃ vuttaṃ... Viññāṇañca hi, ānanda, mātukucchismiṃ na okkamissatha, api nu kho nāmarūpaṃ mātukucchismiṃ samuccissathā ti? No hetaṃ, bhante.
I have said that viññāṇa is the condition for nāmarūpa... for if, Ānanda, there was no descent of viññāṇa into the mother's belly, could nāmarūpa be produced in there? Indeed not, Sir.
It seems to be from this that we get the equation: gandhabba = viññāṇa. And note that EĀ 21.3 seems to bridge the two by replacing gandharva with vijñāna in the essential passage. Commenting on this apparent identification of gandharva and vijñāna, Bodhi says:
"Thus, we might identify the gandhabba here as the stream of consciousness, conceived more animistically as coming over from a previous existence and bringing along its total accumulation of kammic tendencies and personality traits." (2001: 1233-4, n.411). 
We might see it this way, but Bodhi does not say why we would. He is apparently thinking of the Sampasādanīya Sutta (DN 28) which refers to viññāṇasota 'a stream of viññāṇa', presumably a stream of moments of viññāṇa. In this sutta the meditator, by examining the body in minute detail attains four visions: 1. the body is made up of parts; 2. they fit together to make a body; 3. there is a stream of viññāṇa established in this world and the next (Purisassa ca viññāṇasotaṃ pajānāti, ubhayato abbocchinnaṃ idha loke patiṭṭhitañca paraloke patiṭṭhitañca); and 4. there is a stream of viññāṇa that is not established in either world (Purisassa ca viññāṇasotaṃ pajānāti, ubhayato abbocchinnaṃ idha loke appatiṭṭhitañca paraloke appatiṭṭhitañca). Walsh takes the latter to refer to arahants. Despite the reference to a stream of viññāna it's not entirely clear what this means in practice.

We've noted that elsewhere Bodhi seems amenable to an antarābhava, but it seems here that he is also sensitive to the inherent problem of this amenability. The demand of orthodoxy is that too much continuity implies a transmigrating soul (aka substantialist notions); too little continuity and kamma cannot work (kamma must accumulate). We've already explored how the Theravāda worldview provided an overall solution to these kinds of problems through the 24 paccayas (See Action at a Temporal Distance in the Theravāda) which Bodhi is no doubt well versed in. It seems many modern Theravādins are caught in this dilemma.

Ironically the Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhaya Sutta says specifically that thinking of viññāṇa as providing the continuity between lives is foolish. The Bhikkhu Sāti has the pernicious view (pāpika diṭṭhigata):
tadevidaṃ viññāṇaṃ sandhāvati saṃsarati, anaññan ti
It is just this viññāṇa and nothing else which runs through, and goes around [saṃsāra].
He further describes this viññāṇa as:
Yvāyaṃ, bhante, vado vedeyyo tatra tatra kalyāṇapāpakānaṃ kammānaṃ vipākaṃ paṭisaṃvedetī ti
It is that, sir, which speaks and feels, that which experiences the good and bad consequences of actions.
The Buddha describes Sāti as an idiot (moghapurisa) and explains that viññāṇa arises and ceases in dependence on conditions, an idea repeated in many places in the Tripiṭaka. Despite the claims of writers such as Harvey (1995) and Johansson (1979) to see it in the Pali, there is no continuity to be had through viññāṇa. The equation of gandhabba and viññāṇa is simply a mistake, albeit a traditional mistake perpetuated for millennia. Viññāṇa can only exist, to the extent a temporary mental event can be said to exist at all, in a moment of cognition. It must stop when the condition for it stops, i.e. when attention moves on as it does from moment to moment. (cf What is Consciousness?)

According to the standard Theravāda Abhidhamma model of rebirth there is no need for a gandhabba. At the moment of death the last moment of mental activity (cuticitta), gives rise to the first moment of mental activity (paṭisandhicitta) in another being and these two have the same sense object (ārammana). There is no interval between the two, one moment of citta gives rise to the next in an unbroken sequence. No vehicle of viññāṇa is required other than the old and new nāmarūpa respectively. There is no way to fit gandharva into this process of mental activity (cittavīthi). An electronic search of the Abhidhamma reveals no occurrence of the word gandhabba. The Abhidhammakāras dropped the idea of the gandharva. In fact we can go further and say that a gandharva as a being-in-waiting would wreck the Theravāda worldview through internal contradiction. At most what is required is someone about to die. In the moment of dying they spawn another moment of viññāṇa in an embryo somewhere else with no time interval (despite the spatial interval).  Of course many other sects developed views of rebirth that included a temporal interval, and this required an interim entity, which came to be associated with a gandharva.

The other problem with this is metaphysical. DN ii.63 suggests that viññāṇa is the condition for the nāmarūpa (conforming with the 12 nidānas). If we read viññāṇa as "consciousness" (though I'm not sure we should) then the metaphysics of this is to say that conciousness gives rise to body and not the other way around. But from elsewhere, especially discussions of antarābhava, we know that viññāṇa can only exist where there is already rūpa (it requires intact and functioning senses or ahīna-indriyā). At best viññāṇa and nāmarūpa arise in mutual dependence on each other as in the model in the Mahānidāna Sutta (DN 15). The conditionality model comes close to incoherence here.

The best we can do is argue that one word, viññāṇa, is being used in two completely unrelated ways (and neither with much reference to etymology). This is not impossible and there are other words of ambivalent meaning in Buddhism. On one hand we have the viññāṇa that arises from the interaction of sense object and sense faculty which is marked by impermanence, dissatisfaction and insubstantiality. On the other hand we have viññāṇa as that which gives rise to nāmarūpa in the chain of paṭiccasamuppāda but is apparently not dependent on sense object and sense faculty, begging the question of what it can possibly refer to in the Buddhist worldview.

In the three-lifetimes model of the twelve-nidānas, viññāna in the previous existence gives rise to nāmarūpa in the next. However the temporality of this is difficult to square. Viññāṇa is a momentary dhamma that arises and passes away more or less in the moment. The formula of paṭiccasamuppāda requires the presence of the condition for the effect (imasmiṃ sati, idam hoti), and that the effect ceases when the condition ceases (imassa nirodhā idaṃ nirujjhati). This would require that the previous being be still alive when the next being is conceived, but this simultaneity is disallowed by the necessity of them being sequential: the two beings cannot overlap or we would have the situation where a being effectively exists in two places, two bodies at once. And no, this is not permitted by quantum physics which only applies to sub-atomic particles.

There is also a spatial component to this problem. If the viññāṇa of the previous being is to be a condition for the next being then it must be present to act as a condition. Being present is problematic if the two beings are separated by any space at all. This was one of the arguments for antarābhava evinced by Vasubandhu: travelling through space takes an appreciable time. How can two events separated in space be present to each other? Something must happen in the time it takes for the cuti-citta to act as a condition somewhere else in space and give rise to a paṭisandhi-citta. The metaphysics of this proposition is quite complex and must be tackled at another time, but the objection is certainly a powerful one. 

For moderns who understand conception in terms of a sperm fertilising an egg and setting off cell-division that eventually results in the development of a brain capable of sustaining consciousness, none of this makes any sense. The first elements of the brain are in place by 3 weeks gestation, but it doesn't begin to function as a brain for another week. Not until the 8th week are all the major sub-organs of the brain in place. Mental functioning comes into existence slowly over a period of months in the womb, and takes several years of post-natal development to fulfil its potential. For example newborns have no Theory of Mind and thus an incomplete sense of self. This faculty develops only around age four years and should it fail to develop the results can be devastating to the individual and their ability to relate to others. The phenomenology of consciousness tells us that consciousness cannot be an all or nothing affair. No vital spark that transfers between lives has ever been detected, nor given what we know about human development would we even expect such a thing. Buddhist vitalism sometimes seems split between a vital spark of life and a vital spark of consciousness. Whether one can be the other is moot.

Beyond the Canon

As noted previously, it is in the《阿毘達磨大毘婆沙論》or Mahāvibhāṣā, a Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma commentary (T 27, no. 1545), that we see the first equation of  antarābhava, manomaya, gandharva and saṃbhavaiṣin (the last meaning 'being-in-waiting'). Unlike the Theravādins, the Sarvāstivādins embrace gandharva as the form of being in the antarābava.

This idea is taken up by Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośa and his auto-commentary, the ADK Bhāṣya. He asks: "What is the gandharva if not an intermediate state?" (antarābhavaṃ hitvā ko 'nyo gandharvaḥ ADKB 121, commentary on Kośa 3.12c). Anālayo (96) notes this passage as a reference to the three conditions in the Bhāṣya. Vasubandhu is citing a Sanskrit version of the Assalāyama Sutta (above). He notes that those who do not believe in an antarābhava (his "opponents") have a different version of this text in which gandharva is replaced by "a break-up of skandhas [i.e. someone dying] is present" (skandhabhedaś ca pratyupasthito bhavati instead of gandhabbo ca paccupaṭṭhito hoti). But he doubts the opponents could explain it. In his explanation, Vasubandhu says that the gandharva has five skandhas (which is consistent with the Pali description of a manomayakāya as rūpin).

References to gandharva in this sense are rare in Mahāyāna sūtras. Mostly the gandharvas are builders of celestial mansions (compare this with the Lalitavistara Sūtra where the devas offer a mind-made mansion to the Bodhisattva - See Manomayakāya: Mahāyāna Sources). There is some suggestion that these 'celestial mansions' might refer to certain cloud formations, but I've no unequivocal evidence of this. We recall that 'like a city of gandharvas' is a standard way of referring to something fantastic or illusory. 

Asaṅga mentions gandharva in his Yogācarabhūmi I 20.9-13 (cited by Wayman 1974: 238 n. 30)
gandharva ity ucyate gandena gamanād gandhena puṣṭaś ca |
It's called 'gandharva' because it moves by means of odours (gandha) and is satisfied by odours.
What can we conclude from this brief survey of non-Pali Buddhist sources on the gandharva? The tradition of equating the gandharva to the antarābhava seems to be a śāstric or commentarial tradition, rather than a sūtra tradition, that is to say it relies on commentarial exegesis of texts that are ambiguous. Once we accept the idea of an antarābhava, explanations are demanded and Buddhists drew on their existing mythology and terminology to fill the gap. But as the non-antarābhava traditions show, the ideas are not explicit or inherent in the existing traditions, but are shoe-horned into place post hoc.


Contra Anālayo, there's no doubt that some Buddhists, including some Theravādins, took gandharva to be something like a Vitalist 'spark of life', or worse a kind of consciousness that inhabits a new body - they viewed it as substantial (within a substance dualist ontology). This is, for example, Peter Harvey's view (1995). The difficulties presented by rebirth in the absence of a connecting entity sometimes seem to have overwhelmed Buddhist thinkers and caused them to lean towards eternalism, even when any interval between death and rebirth was denied. There is too much continuity in the idea of a being-in-waiting hanging around after death and it simply sounds like a soul, even if we refer to it as a "stream of consciousness", which ancient Buddhists did not. 

It's not at all clear from the preserved Early Buddhist texts alone what was intended by gandharva in the rebirth process. The presence (paccupaṭṭhita) of a gandharva is required for conception without ever specifying what that presence contributes. In retrospect it might well have meant that a fertility god must be present to bestow fertility on the union. Buddhists seem to have been aware of the role of semen in fertility, and to have understood that women were sometimes more and sometimes less able to conceive, and that a certain amount of randomness prevailed. Taken in isolation we might guess that they thought of the gandharva as a fertility god, in the same way that they attributed rain to the rain-gods (deve vassante). Such small gods seem to have been a fact of life to early Buddhists. However, extant Buddhist exegetical texts seem to universally take gandharva in this context to be some kind of being-in-waiting, with minor differences according to sect. We'll never know if the original intent was different from the conventional interpretation, because time has obscured almost all evidence. But the fact that different sects have different versions of this text which reflect their attitudes to antarābhava must make us suspect that some late editing has gone on. And we have no reason to trust one sect over another.

We noted above that in the Pali Assalāyana Sutta the idea of a gandharva having a role in conception is in fact attributed to Brahmins. In this text the main point is that social class as conceived by the Brahmins is not valid as they explain it, since they cannot explain the social class of the gandharva. Is it possible, then, that the gandharva as being-in-waiting is a Brahmanical idea? If so then perhaps the authors of the text saw the challenge to caste identity as more important than the challenge to a being-in-waiting? Then, later, later Buddhists misunderstood the context and took the absence of argument against gandharva as an affirmation (something modern scholars also do). Gombrich (2009) has showed that this process occurs in a number of other cases (see also my essay The Buddha and the Lost Metaphor). Anālayo also thinks this kind of conclusion is likely (98). However, we find nothing in the Brahmanical literature to support the idea that the term gandharva was Brahmanical. In fact the Brahmanical term for the connecting entity by the time Buddhism came along was almost always ātman, a term which has been widely studied and commented upon. I have not seen ātman and gandharva equated. As far as we can tell the Brahmins had no need of a gandharva in their view of conception and rebirth.

The question of why the Buddhists adopted this idea remains. The ancient Theravādins managed to avoid much of the metaphysical mess by being scriptural literalists: no antarābhava in the suttas means there is no antarābhava and therefore no need for a type of antarā-satta or interim being. They developed a version of karma which required instantaneous rebirth to maintain the flow of mental activity (viññāṇasota). Some modern Theravādins, including some bhikkhus, are trapped in the contradiction of affirming an interval between death and rebirth which flatly contradicts their underlying metaphysics. And contra everything said so far, most Theravādins still seem to accept on the basis of the texts cited above, that a gandharva is necessary for rebirth to take place, giving it an active rather than passive role.

By contrast, those Buddhist schools which accepted the idea of an antarābhava were left with trying to explain it. And in doing so they roped in a variety of other concepts like manomaya kāya and gandharva. A critical look at the issue shows that they never solved the problems created by the antarābhava. Every additional feature of the afterlife requires explanation and thus metaphysical speculation proliferates and never settles anything.

And this is the problem with all afterlife beliefs. They are all just speculative. Every time a new supernatural event or entity is added to the narrative to explain some existing gap, another gap opens up. When one explains the world using supernatural speculation, this explanatory gap is inevitable. At some point the religieux inevitably shrugs and says something like "well, you just have to take it on faith".

Inevitably Buddhists invoke meditative experience as the authority for their beliefs. I want to deal with the problem of generalising from unusual private experiences to a public supernatural reality in another essay, but the phrasing hints at the problem.

Buddhists are apt to invoke twenty odd centuries of pre-scientific profession of belief as an argument for rebirth. But this is no argument at all. Long held supernatural beliefs have often been shown to be wrong. For centuries people believed that fevers were caused by bad air (this is the literal meaning of malaria). But we now know that malaria is caused by a parasite carried by certain types of mosquito. To assert that bad air caused a fever would be ignorant at best. On the other hand many people still believe that cold damp air can cause the common cold or "a chill" as it's sometimes called. So perhaps we have some way to go.


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02 January 2015

Gandharva and the Buddhist Afterlife. Part I

a gandharva serenades  Brahmā
Gandharvas play two distinct roles in Buddhist metaphysics. They are firstly minor gods usually depicted as musicians and secondly they are supposedly involved in human conception. Those Buddhists who believed in an antarābhava, or interim realm, adopted the idea of the gandharva (Pali gandhabba) as the form beings take in the antarābhava, though this bears no relation to the celestial musician. Those who did not believe still shoehorned the gandharva into the rebirth process, but were much more vague about what they meant. This essay and the next will summarise and critique some research into the history of the idea of gandharva with respect to the antarābhava

We have one quite thorough study of the gandharva by Oliver Hector de Alwis Wijesekere (1945). However Wijesekere indulges in a level of speculation, involving multiple shifting interpretations of the meanings of names and creative reading of myth, that is hardly acceptable by modern standards of scholarship. His is an imaginative reading, no doubt, but his exposition seems to be an attempt to create a mythology rather than describe one. His account is frequently tendentious, arguing towards the fixed goal that the Vedic texts explain the Pali references when they do not! For example he claims;
" is seen that most of the above discussed mythological associations of the Vedic notion of Gandharva are found [in the Pali Nikāyas] but in a more developed form..." (86)
This claim is not simply false, it is an outrageous over-statement that is completely at odds even with his own baroque reading of the Vedas. And yet it is typical of the tone of the whole article. The article is still useful for identifying relevant passages, but these all require careful and sober reconsideration in light of contemporary methods and studies of Vedic myth.

A subsequent study by Cuevas (1996: 279-281) is a useful start, but is far from comprehensive. It also suffers from a certain amount of speculation as to how to interpret Ṛgveda (RV) passages. Some of Cuevas's references to RV simply do not tally with the content he attributes to them.

So we must proceed with caution and with due attention to primary sources.


It's not entirely clear what the name gandharva means. Georges Dumézil (1948) suggests an Indo-European ancestor *Guhondh-erwo- though he does not give a meaning for this root. Modern sources on Indo-European language do not list a root *Guhondh. He also links it via the Latin februo 'purify' to *Guhedh-rwo. There is a root *gwhedh in AHD, which means 'to ask, to pray' (bid is a rare cognate). However the dictionaries say that the origin of februo is uncertain, possibly related to 'fume' from PIE *dheu-.

Vasubandhu repeats a folk etymology of gandharva as gandhaṃ arvati 'it eats smells'. However modern dictionaries do not list 'eat' as a meaning of √arv. Monier-Williams, for example, lists this as a fanciful root meaning 'hurt, kill'; while Apte just has 'kill'. The name is various translated into Buddhist Chinese as 食香 (eater of odours), 尋香行 (one who goes in search of odours), 香陰 (fragrant secret?), 香神 (fragrant spirit), 尋香 (searching for odours), 樂天 (music god, heavenly musician), etc; and transliterated as 乾闥婆 (Middle Chinese gandalpa, Pinyin gāntàpó). (Digital Dictionary of Buddhism). The character 香 can mean 'smell, odour, fragrance, incense, etc.'. This suggests that the name was widely interpreted according to folk etymology.

Most Buddhist sources try to derive the name from gandha 'smell'. Sanskrit gandha is usually said to be from √ghrā 'to smell' and ghrāṇa 'nose' (i.e. the smeller) from a PIE root *ghrē- (PED sv gandha); possibly related to English fragrant though other sources derive this from PIE *bhrə-g-. Cognate words from *ghrē- are few and include Greek osphrainomai (ὀσφραίνομαι) 'to catch scent of, smell'; and Tocharian kor/krāṃ 'nose'.

Edward Washburn Hopkins (1968) says the Viṣṇu Purāṇa (1.5.44) derives the name from gam-dhara 'song maker' from √/√gai 'to sing' and √dhṛ 'to bear'. Unfortunately the Viṣṇu Purāṇa doesn't say this and the citation is to a different verse; and in any case dhara means 'bearer', not 'maker'. By contrast the translation by Wilson (1840: 41) has:
"The Gandharbas [sic] were next born, imbibing melody: drinking of the goddess of speech, they were born, and thence their appellation." 
This corresponds to VPu 1,5.46:
dhyāyato 'ṅgāt samutpannā gandharvās tasya tatkṣaṇāt |
pibanto jajñire vācaṃ gandharvās tena te dvija ||
VPu 1,5.46 ||
Which I understand to say:
The gandharvas have arisen at the same moment as his contemplation,
Born drinking Speech, those gandharvas are therefore twice born.
So not 'song-maker', or even 'song-bearer'; nor 'imbiber of melody', but in fact 'drinking speech' (pibanto vācam), i.e. imbibing speech at birth, noting that Vāc is the name of speech personified.

This is not to say that gaṃ-dhara is a stupid idea for an etymology of gandharva, because it isn't. If gaṃ comes from √ 'to sing' and dhar- from √dhṛ 'to bear' (with guṇa of the root vowel) and we form an adjective by adding the primary suffix -va we get to our goal without mangling the language. In practice the nasal in gaṃ- would change to gan when followed by dharva because of sandhi rules. In support of this derivation we can site primary derivative forms from √dhṛ such as dharuṇadhartṛdhartra and dharman (with suffixes -uṇa, -tṛ, -tra, -man). Against this idea is the fact that dharva is not a standalone word, or found in any other context in Sanskrit dictionaries.

Gaṃ-dharva seems no less plausible than deriving gandha from √ghrā, in fact it seems more plausible, in the sense there are fewer anomalous changes to explain: √ must lighten its root vowel; √ghrā on the other hand must lose aspiration, lose the liquid /r/, and lighten its root vowel, not to mention that -dha is not a standard suffix and would have to be derived from some other root such as √dhā. In terms of derivatives, √ghrā has forms ghrātṛ, ghrāṇa (suggesting that it doesn't undergo the kinds of changes being suggested by gandha).

In this case gandharva would mean 'a bearer of songs', which certainly fits the role assigned to them in the late Vedic and Epic literature.

Gandharva in the Ṛgveda

The name gandharva occurs just 20 times in the Ṛgveda (1028 hymns in about 10,000 verses).

  • book 1 - 2 references
  • book 3 - 1 reference
  • book 9 - 4 references
  • book 8 - 2 references
  • book 10 - 11 references

Roughly speaking, books 2-7 are considered the earliest layers, 1, 8 & 9 are middling, and book 10 latest. Thus the idea of gandharva appears to have some antiquity, but is of very minor interest to the early composers of RV. Gradually it became slightly more important, but was never central. The various mentions tap into different aspects of the gandharva (some of which seem incompatible). In citing RV I'll use the translations of Doniger (1981) as a reference point. Where the Sanskrit is clear enough I'll provide my own rendering, but RV is frequently obscure and beyond my linguistic level.

One of the tricky aspects of trying to essay this subject is that the sources are vague. So for example Cuevas (280) says that, "The Brāhmaṇic sources recount how Soma remained with the gandharvas, and how the gandharva Vivāsvat (the Vedic father of Yama and Yamī) had stolen the vital juice." However in most stories it is either Indra riding on an eagle who steals Soma (RV 4.36) or an eagle who steals Soma and gives it to Indra (RV 4.18). Elsewhere Vivāsvat is certainly said to be the father of the twins Yama and Yamī (RV 10.17; 10.10). And elsewhere e.g. RV 10.10.4(cd)  where Yama's twin sister, Yamī, is trying unsuccessfully to seduce him, Yama says:
gandharvó apsú ápiyā ca yóṣāsā́
no nā́bhiḥ paramáṃ jāmí tán nau
The gandharva and the maiden in the waters,
Is our supreme origin, that is our relationship.
If we follow the implication then Vivāsvat was a gandharva. On the other hand Doniger (1981: 250 n.8) comments that gandharva here is "Probably the sun, born of the waters, but perhaps just any gandharva." In fact Vivāsvat is usually a name for the sun.

Cuevas also cites RV 10.85 several times: the sūkta about the marriage of Sūryā (daughter of the sun). This sūkta also mentions Viśvāvasu and a gandharva plays a role. Doniger calls Viśvāvasu "a Gandharva who possesses girls before their marriage" (273 n.21 - commenting on 10.85.21). The associated verses (21-22) are an exorcism of Viśvāvasu. The marriage ritual seems to conceive of the bride Sūryā being married four times: to Soma, a gandharva, Agni, and a human, though it's not clear what the significance of this is. Doniger mentions that this is a template for marriage, and thus the ritual may conceive of all women going through this process of being married first to the gods and then her husband proper. At any rate the text is concerned to send the gandharva packing as an unwanted intrusion. We'll see that gandharvas sometimes possess people in  the Upaniṣads as well.

In the mid-Vedic period text, Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (ŚB 3.2.4), we find another completely different myth of the stealing of Soma that is tied up with the character of Viśvāvasu. The Brāhmaṇas are commentaries on the ritual of the Vedas and date from the period after the composition of the Vedas and well before Buddhism (ca. 1000-800 BCE). In this story it is Gāyatrī who steals Soma, but afterwards she was carried off by the gandharva Visvāvasu (the names are close but different). The devas thinking "the gandharvas like women" sent Vāc to them and she returned with Soma. However the gandharvas proposed that the devas marry Soma while they married Vāc. And at this point we get the moral of the story. Gandharvas seriously recited the Vedas to Soma, while the devas frivolously sing and dance to attract Vāc. And this is why, according to ŚB, women are attracted to frivolous things, since they follow Vāc rather than Soma. (cf Eggelington). Commentators use this passage to characterise gandharvas generally as interested in women and all things sexual, though in fact the text tried to characterise them as serious and pious.

What both Wijesekere and Cuevas do is take all the stories as being of the same period and the same weight, as though a story from ŚB can be taken without any reservation or caveats as from the same body of literature as a story from RV. However, historically the Brāhmaṇa texts represent a very different phase of Vedic culture, many centuries removed, and while there are obvious relations, we must be very cautious about simply equating all Vedic literature. Unpicking the resulting mess from these studies is laborious and time consuming. Almost as much as doing it from scratch. And if the scholarly literature is confused in this way, then we can see why the popular literature is confused. And given the importance of the gandharva to understanding the Buddhist afterlife, this is salutary.

To carry on with our survey of the Ṛgvedic gandharva, we may say that the relationship of the sun and the waters is a little counter-intuitive, but in at least some Vedic cosmogonic myth the first substance to emerge from the primordial chaos is water, and from water all things are created, including the sun. Soma is said to combine fire and water and thus bestow immortality (RV 4.18, 4.26; Doniger 1981: 128). It is worth noting the similarities with the so-called twin-miracle (yamaka-pātihāriya) in which the Buddha expresses fire and water from his body while hovering in the sky.

One of the important observations on the Vedic gandharva is that it lives (or they live) in the antarīkṣa or interim realm, the liminal space between earth (pṛthivī) and heaven (svarga). They are also associated with Soma in various ways. We saw that some stories attribute the theft of Soma to gandharvas, but they are also seen to empower Soma, eg RV 9.113.3
parjányavr̥ddham mahiṣáṃ
táṃ sū́ryasya duhitā́bharat
táṃ gandharvā́ḥ práty agr̥bhṇan
táṃ sóme rásam ā́dadhur
índrāyendo pári srava
The buffalo raised by Parjanya (God of rain),
It was brought by the daughter of Sūrya (the sun);
The gandharvas have received it,
Placed the juice in Soma.
O drop, flow for Indra.
The juice in Soma is squeezed out and consumed. It not only makes the sacrifice efficacious, but also produces the drug which releases the imagination and the tongue of the kavi or poet. However this only complicates the picture of the gandharva's relationship with Soma. Soma is of central important to the ritual cult of the Brahmins, and thus to positively associate a divine entity with Soma is certainly to give it a certain cachet or importance. The trouble is that while both myths allow gandharvas a facilitating role with respect to Soma, it is different in each case.  Are they reflexes of a common myth or are they two distinct myths that happen to have been collected when the various Brahmin tribes combined their stories to form the Ṛgveda?

So far as I can tell there is only one Vedic sūkta, RV 10.177 (especially verse 2), which associates gandharva and the womb or garbha. Doniger links this sūkta with RV 10.123, which she describes as "strange and mystical" (190). The gandharvas reveal the secret name of the immortals (vidád gandharvó amŕ̥tāni nā́ma) and are carried up to heaven by their female partners the Apsaras. The story is partly about Indra (or an eagle) stealing Soma from the devas and thus is a further association of gandharva with Soma. The symbolism here is not at all obvious.
pataṃgó vā́cam mánasā bibharti
tā́ṃ gandharvó avadad gárbhe antáḥ
tā́ṃ dyótamānāṃ svaríyam manīṣā́m
r̥tásya padé kaváyo ní pānti || 10.177.2 ||
The bird carries speech in its mind,
The gandharva spoke that inside the womb;
That revelation shining like the sun,
The poets guard as a sign of cosmic order.
It's possible here that pataṃga 'bird' (literally 'goes by flying') refers to the gandharva, later as we'll see a Buddhist text refers to gandharvas as 'sky-goers' vihaṅgama. It's quite possible that birds were the inspiration for the gandharvas: little musical entities occupying and flying about in the sky. William K. Mahony (1998) interprets the bird as symbolising the sun on one level, the cosmic order (ṛta) on another, and also "the inner light of insight or visionary understanding residing with the poet's heart" (73; Cf. Wijesekere  78-80). The breadth of this reading also shows how the texts are wide open to interpretation. Some of this symbolism appears to be intended, but we always have the suspicion that the commentator sees what they wish to see because the references are vague enough to allow it.

There is really nothing in these Vedic stories that hints at a role for gandharvas in conception. Apart from the rather muddled way in which gandharvas appear (mirrored by their muddled treatment by scholars) we learn almost nothing that is relevant to our investigation of the role of the gandharva in conception or existence in the antarābhava.

In his article on the Pali gandhabba (= Skt gandharva) Anālayo (2008), citing a recent article by Thomas Oberlies, suggests that the Vedic gandharva "had the particular function of transmitting things from one world to another" and that it was a "god of transfer" (96). However, since the Buddhist gandhabba is a being to be born, rather than a god of conception, he concludes that the word gandhabba lost this connotation (96). Is Oberlies referring to the myth of stealing Soma? I cannot see any other example of gandharvas associated with transmission, but this can hardly be linked to conception. Oberlies's article is in German, so I cannot investigate the reasoning behind this claim, but I cannot see that the word gandharva ever had the connotation of "god of transfer". By contrast Cuevas says "gandharvas are not identified in the early Upaniṣads as transitional beings" (284).

We move now, perhaps 700 or 800 years forward in time from the composition of the Ṛgveda, depending on the dates assigned to the composition of our texts, to the (Pre-Buddhist) Early Upaniṣads. Here we are in an entirely different landscape. Brahmins lost the plant that produced the Soma drug and adopted a non-psycho-active substitute, the ritual became much more formalistic, and the focus of the Brahmanical religion had begun to shift from the cosmic harmony or ṛta, to the cosmic absolute or brahman. However various scholars have shown that Buddhist texts are cognizant of certain themes and ideas from this tradition, so it is a likely hunting ground for understanding.

Gandharva in the Early Upaniṣads

Generally speaking in the Upaniṣads, gandharvas are a form of non-human beings who occupy a realm located between the ancestor-realm (pitṛloka) in the sky (antarīkṣa) and heaven (svarga) where the devas live. Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad (BU 3.6.1) describes the dependencies of the various realms, listed in order. We find the intermediate region woven on the basis of the gandharva world (gandharvaloka). This is in turn woven on the basis of worlds of the sun, moon, stars and devas, etc, with the ultimate basis being the worlds of brahman (brahmalokā plural). BU 4.3.33 compares the bliss experienced by various types of beings in various realms, with more refined beings experiencing 100 times more bliss than less refined beings. The order here is manuṣya, the world won by the ancestors (pitṝṇāṃ jitaloka), realm of the gandharvas (gandharvaloka), the gods of rituals (karmadevā), gods of generation (ājānadevā), the realm of the progenitor (prajāpatiloka), the realm of Brahman (brahmanloka). A similar statement is found in the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (TU 2.8). In the Kaṭha Upaniṣad (KaU 6.5) one may gain a body on the basis of realising Brahman. In this world it is like a reflection in a mirror; in the ancestor realm it is like a dream; in the gandharva realm like an image in water; and in the world of brahman it is like shadow and light. 

BU 3.3.1 describes a young woman possessed by a gandharva (gandharva-gṛhīta). Interesting the other protagonists learning the name of the gandharva ask him questions about the ends of the worlds (lokānāmantān). Contrast this with the possession we saw above at RV 10.85, which focuses on exorcising the gandharva. Similarly at BU 3.7.1 a man's wife is possessed by a gandharva who proceeds the question everyone present on the sacrifice (like a guru). In both cases the information gleaned from dialoguing with a gandharva is used to test Yājñavalkya, who of course always knows the answers to their questions.

Here the various associations of gandharvas found in the Ṛgveda are almost all lost. No sun, no Soma, no waters; not the father of Yama or any of that. Apart from the fact that gandharvas are beings who live in the sky, but are lower in the hierarchy than devas, there is nothing much here to inform our understanding of the gandharvas, and nothing at all that hints at a role in conception. Gandharvas remain in the background. However there is another body of myth and legend in the Epics, i.e. the Mahābhārata and Ramāyāna, and older Purāṇas where we often find themes and figures in common with Buddhist texts.

Other Vedic Literature

Ideally we would survey the gandharva in the Epics and Purāṇas, though the scale of the literature is enormous and largely unfamiliar to me. The dates of composition are doubtful and most likely stretch over many centuries. In the Mahābhārata we find gandharvas portrayed as celestial musicians. Finally a substantial connection to Buddhist gandharvas! A gandharva named Citrasena teaches music and dance to Arjuna for example in book three (Vanaparva  III, 44, 1793, 1795). However the gandharvas are also warriors who teach Arjuna the arts of war.

One of the themes in the modern comparative literature, Wijesekere dedicates several pages to this theme is the connection between gandharvas and centaurs. I have seen frequent casual references to kinnaras (or kiṃnara) as a sub-type of gandharva in the Mahābhārata, which seems to be a reference to MBh 2.10.14a "The gandharvas called kiṃnaras..." (किंनरा नाम गन्धर्वा) followed by a list of other 25 other names for gandharvas (translation here)On another occasion it might be interesting to compare this section of the Mahābhārata with the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta (DN 32) with which there seem to be superficial similarities. Equally there are frequent references to kinnaras as horse-headed, horse-faced (i.e. aśvamukha), or half-horse. Via Monier-Williams dictionary I located one reference to kiṃnaras as aśvamukha in a 7th Century work called Kādambarī (hardly relevant to early Buddhism). I'll return to this below.

We also find reference to gandharva-nagara 'city of gandharvas' in the Mahābhārata and other texts where is it stands for an illusion. To be like a city of the gandharvas is to be like a dream for example, or a magic show. This simile is also common in Buddhist works (See e.g. the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism sv. gandharva-nagara)

When looking for the roots of the gandharva as it appears in Buddhist texts, the Epics and Purāṇas would seem to be more fruitful. We can tentatively say that the Vedas and Upaniṣads are the texts of religious specialists whereas the Epics have a more popular flavour. The former are full of metaphysical speculation; the latter focus on morality plays. The former are concerned with ultimate truths; the latter with cultural identity. These generalisations over-simplify the situation somewhat, but give a flavour of the main themes. The Indian Epics have much in common with the Greek Epics of Homer, with active gods, heroic humans and larger than life scale of actions; whereas the Ṛgveda might be likened to some of the Hebrew Psalms especially those which praise God.

That said I have not found any reference to a role in conception in any non-Buddhist text.

Gandharva as an Indo-European Phenomenon.

Wijesekere makes a great deal of the similarity of the Sanskrit gandharva and the Avestan gaṇdarǝba (variant spellings include gaṇdərəβa- or gaṇdaraβa-, where βa is an aspirated ba that we would usually write bha in Sanskrit; Wijesekere spells it gandharewa). Gaṇdarǝba was the name of a monster living in the lake Vourukaṧa. His epithet zairi-pāšna- meaning 'yellow-heeled' rather than "golden hooved" weakens Wijesekere's argument for links to centaurs.

Certainly the names are cognate. However, the stories about them seem unrelated and it's difficult to see any similarity beyond the name. This is also true when comparing gandharva in the Ṛgveda and the Upaniṣads, or any of these with the Buddhist gandharvas. Perhaps the name became a floating signifier for any kind of minor god? We do see this trend in other minor gods such as nāgas and yakṣas (See Sutherland 1991). For more on the possible connection, see Panaino (2012).

The suggested connection with the Greek Κένταυρος kéntauros (Latin centaurus) remains speculative. One argument for it was put forward by Georges Dumézil (1948: 29-30, 38), but like Wijesekere, Dumézil is rather too loose in his reasoning.  He simply asserts, with no citation, that "in later writings the (masculine plural) Gandharva are beings with horses' heads and men's torsos who live in a special world of their own." (28). As we've seen above this connection seems to rest on a single reference to kinnaras as aśvamukha and another single reference to gandharvas called kinnara. By page 38 he has forgotten how flimsy this reasoning is and further boldly asserts that gandharvas are "half-horse"! Presumably in the magical world he is thinking of, being half-horse is no barrier to flying through the air or playing a musical instrument. Hopkins (1968) also favours some relationship between gandharva and centaur, but he also seems to be stretching his evidence beyond breaking point.

Even if there is some connection based on these tenuous links, they don't seem to tell us anything about the Buddhist gandharva and its role in the continuity of the person through saṃsāra


In investigating gandharva we are struck by the almost ubiquitous confusion in the modern sources. This may be because the primary sources are limited in scope, vague in content, and from vastly different time periods. Far too little attention paid to the historical context of such mentions as we find. We simply cannot conflate early and late Vedic sources for example; nor Veda and Epic references. Adding all the vague references together does not clarify anything. What makes Wijesekere's account so difficult to read is that he makes no distinctions whatever between the stories: all are given equal weight. Where there is a disconnection or explanatory gap he fills it with a Romantic leap of imagination, weaving a narrative that owes as much to his own interpretation as it does to the text. 

The methods used for dealing with the gandharvas in literature are misleading. Instead, I propose that we pay attention to the many centuries between versions of the stories and identify the gandharva as a bit player whose role is altered from time to time. The roles are distinct rather than cumulative. The thief of soma is not the celestial musician and so on. All that links these characters and characteristics is the name. Gandharva is a mythic widget. Note also the Iranian and Indian stories of gandharva seem to be completely unrelated. So the name might be Indo-Iranian, but the being is not. It is an error to treat the name as a rubric for all the many qualities associated with it over the centuries. When the name gandharva takes on new characteristics, it sheds the old. In the case of the gandharva, the many facets are not compatible. The early and late Vedic literature, the Epics and Purāṇas, even the Zoroastrian Avesta, certainly know the gandharva, but the various versions of these beings have little if anything in common with each other, let along Buddhist usage (as will be more clear next week as we survey Buddhist texts). Vedic gandharvas are very minor gods, with shifting associated symbolism.

I've complained before about the tendency in modern scholarship to seek singularities in our narratives of the past (see Unresolvable Plurality in Buddhist Metaphysics?) and proposed an alternative to the 'evolutionary tree' metaphor in the braided river (see Evolution: Trees and Braids). The attempt to simplify a complex picture by positing a single originating point, or an overarching rubric falsifies the record. One name obscures considerable narrative complexity for a being that is only mentioned a handful of times.

Where there is some apparent crossover with Buddhist gandharvas it is in the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas. The connection between Buddhist myth and the Mahābhārata has to date received far too little attention. Perhaps because the Mahābhārata is a massive corpus in its own right, the study of which is a specialist subject in its own right. However nothing in any of the sources surveyed sheds any light at all on the gandharva as interim being or its role in conception. This role seems to be entirely a Buddhist innovation.


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