Showing posts with label Obeyesekere. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Obeyesekere. Show all posts

15 June 2012

How Buddhist Rebirth Changes Over Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


10 February 2012

Possible History for the Buddhist Idea of Karma

IN THIS ESSAY I am going to present a speculative theory about where the Buddhist idea of karma comes from. It is backed up by some circumstantial evidence, and fits into a larger argument, but on its own might seem a little flimsy. More background can be found in my essay Possible Iranian Origins of Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism (a draft can be found on As I say in the conclusion of that essay: "Ideas have histories". Buddhists like to maintain the story that both the Buddha and his ideas were entirely historically unique, but I think this is unlikely.

I also think current attempts to put the Buddha's ideas in context are quite limited. The only well attested tradition of the time is the late Vedic tradition, and almost inevitably scholars try to relate Buddhism to Brahmanism. This leads to an overemphasis on this aspect of Buddhism. Here I present an outline of a possible history for the Buddhist version of karma which aims to look beyond the Buddha's Vedic contemporaries. However it is worth looking briefly at his Vedic predecessors first.

In the early and middle period Vedic literature (ca. 1500-800 BCE) the word karma had ritual rather than ethical significance. In the late Vedic literature, dating from probably 2-3 centuries before the Buddha, we begin to find references to one's afterlife destination being dependent on one's actions (karma) in life. BU 4.4.5 explicitly states:
yathākārī yathācārī tathā bhavati| sādhukārī sādhur bhavati| pāpakārī pāpo bhavati| puṇyaḥ puṇyena karmaṇā pāpaḥ pāpena||
However he acts or behaves, he becomes that. Acting right (sādhu) he is right, acting harmfully (pāpa) he is harmful. He is good (puṇya) by doing good actions, and evil by doing evil actions.[1]
These terms—sādhu/puṇya and pāpa—still seem to be related to correct participation in Vedic ritual life rather than ethics. However even at this level the very fact of a right way to behave and wrong way results in different afterlife destinations.

A development within the BU is that a man's actions based on desire (kāma) causes him to cycle between this world and the next world (BU 4.4.6). In the next world the results of actions are exhausted, and it is only in this world that actions are performed. However a man freed from desire has a different fate: brahmaiva sanbrahmāpyeti 'he is only brahman, he goes to brahman'. [2] CU 8.1-2 also appears to list a number of alternative post-mortem destinations based on desires. Giving up desire is part of a renunciate lifestyle in this context, so again this is not quite ethics.

Also both Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and Chāndogya Upaniṣad propose different post-mortem destinations for those who know about the five fires (pañcāgni-vidyā), those who only practice the ordinary Brahmanical rituals, and those who do neither (BU 6.2, CU 5.2-10). Richard Gombrich (2009) has suggested that certain Pāli texts, particularly the Tevijja Sutta, make allusions to the five fires. He says that this can be interpreted as the Buddha having knowledge of the Upaniṣads. I'm not sure about this any longer, but that is a topic for another essay.

So here are three distinct versions of how behaviour in life affects one's afterlife: right actions (sādhukārin), renunciation of desire (kāma), and special knowledge (vidyā). There are some similarities with Buddhist karma and rebirth here, but only in the sense that all cyclic rebirth eschatologies will seem similar. We should not be surprised to find that Brahmanism has influenced Buddhism. Though it is interesting to note that Michael Witzel has shown that BU and CU were probably composed in different parts of North India, and Signe Cohen highlights the different contexts: BU to some extent represents a challenge to orthodoxy vested in the Ṛgveda, whereas CU is more conservative. However to me (and Richard Gombrich) the CU version of the pañcāgni-vidyā looks like an elaboration of BU.

Another possible source for Buddhist views is Jainism, and Richard Gombrich (2009), citing work by Will Johnson, has explored this connection. The Jain version of karma is in fact closer to the Buddhist version than the Brahmanical is, however it does not distinguish between good and bad actions, but says that all action is harmful. This may suggest that Jainism influenced Buddhism, though Jainism per se is only likely to have been a generation of two earlier. However we need to be cautious about opinions on ancient Jainism. The Jains, according to their own traditions, which are confirmed by modern scholarship, lost the texts that might parallel the Pāli suttas. Our idea about early Jainism are a reconstruction, partly based on the Pāli suttas which contain glimpses of the Jains. Early Jainism, then, is far more doubtful that early Buddhism, and we should know by now that early Buddhism is quite uncertain. Even if we accept the reconstructed versions this only tells us about the situation contemporary with the Buddha, or perhaps a generation earlier.

I want to suggest that both Jainism and Buddhism have roots that go considerably deeper and the emergence of both, and other groups like the Ājivakas, represents the end of a process rather than the beginning of one. Aspects of the Buddhist teachings on morality and karma resemble Zoroastrian concepts. According to leading scholar on the Zoroastrians, the late Mary Boyce, the Zoroastrians defined themselves this way:
“We are those who welcome the good thoughts, good words, and good acts which, here and elsewhere, are and have been realized. We are not those who denigrate good (things).” (Boyce 2004)
Note that they are good in thought, word, and action, and this is very similar to the Buddhist conception of ethics pertaining to actions of body, speech and mind. This connection seems to have been first noticed by Caroline Rhys Davids in the 1920s. [3] Likewise in Zoroastrianism after you die you are judged on your actions. Mary Boyce puts it this way:
"the soul’s fate depends solely on the sum of the individual’s thoughts, words, and acts, the good being weighed against the bad, so that no observances should avail it in any way." (Boyce 1994)
The idea of weighing the heart/soul of the deceased occurs in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and this seems to have been an influence on the development of Zoroastrianism. Soul weighing is a little different to Buddhist doctrine, but consider what is actually achieved by the two processes: one's afterlife destination is determined by adherence to the law in Egypt, and by to the Dharma in India. Just as for the Brahmins the afterlife becomes divided. Gananath Obeyesekere observes that this seems to happen quite universally. Once right and wrong ways of living have been enunciated:
"There can no longer be a single place for those who have done good and those who have done bad. The otherworld [i.e. the afterlife] must minimally split into two, a world of retribution ('hell') and a world of reward ('heaven')." (Obeyesekere 2002: 79).
The connection may be even stronger than it first appears. Consider the Devadūta Sutta (MN 130, M iii.178) which explains how after death a being who has behaved badly might be reborn in hell (niraya); there they will be seized by the guardians of hell (nirayapālā), dragged before King Yāma and cross-examined about their evil conduct of body, speech and mind. Unable to account for themselves, they are then condemned to horrific tortures which are graphically described. It is emphasised that:
na ca tāva kālaṅkaroti yāva na taṃ pāpakammaṃ byantīhoti.
as long as that evil action is not destroyed, he does not die.
And until he dies he cannot be reborn in another realm. Read in light of a possible connection to Zoroastrianism, this text seems to take on a new significance. There is no Indian precedent for such an idea. Some scholars have pointed to possible precursors to the idea of Hell in the Vedic tradition, but even in the Late Vedic texts the idea is barely formed, and nothing like the elaborations we find in the Pāli texts. In fact the Buddhist idea of being reborn in a place of extreme torture as a way of extirpating evil karma appears as if from nowhere. However like the world of the Vedic fathers it is not a place where karma consequences can be created. Hell, like Heaven is a place of passivity rather than activity.

How could Zoroastrian ideas get all the way to North-East India, without having an impact on the intervening culture, i.e. the orthodox Kuru-Pañcāla Brahmins? I believe that Harvard Indologist Michael Witzel (1997, 2002, 2010) has the answer to this. As I wrote earlier this year the idea that the Śākyas were in fact Scythians (Skt. Śaka), that is steppe dwelling nomads, is usually given short shrift because despite the similarities in the names, the Scythians arrived in India much later ca. 150 BCE. But Witzel has showed, and these similarities with Zoroastrianism themselves form part of the evidence, that the Śākyas probably were related to the Śakas. The Śākyas are not mentioned in the Vedas, or in the Brāhmaṇa and Āraṇyaka literature, which suggests that they arrived in India (via Iran) after about 1000 BCE when the Ṛgveda reached its final form, and before the lifetime of the Buddha (ca. 500 BCE). See Witzel (1997).

Climate change evidence suggests 850 BCE as a pivotal date because it marks the beginning of an abrupt arid period in Western India, and a great westward expansion of the Scythians of the Asian Steppes (van Geel et. al. 2004a, 2004b). The Śākyas were just one of many non-Vedic tribes, who spoke Indo-Aryan dialects, who made the journey east. Alongside them were the Malla, Vajji, Licchavi, Naya, Kālāma, Buli, Moriya, and Vesali. They slotted in around the previous inhabitants from tribes such as Kosala, Kāśi and Videha who migrated somewhat earlier due to the rise of the Kuru tribe in the Northwest (ca. 1200-1000 BCE) and dominated the region. It's quite likely the early migrants interacted with, and ultimately displaced an Austro-Asiatic speaking culture, from which we get the animistic cults (e.g. yakṣas). The Kosala-Videha region was, broadly speaking, Indo-Aryan culturally and linguistically by the Buddha's day. Brahmanism with its Vedic language texts was largely a product of the Kuru-Pañcāla tribes, but Brahmins had begun to have an influence in the region by the 5th century BCE.

So my suggestion is that we see Buddhist (and Jain) karma as part of the culmination of a process of assimilation of Iranian and/or Zoroastrian ideas by the Kosala-Videha tribes in the Central Ganges Plain region, introduced by the Śākyas. The process probably started soon after 850 BCE when climate change affected the environment and set in process a series of migrations across Eurasia and the sub-continent. The emergence of Buddhism and Jainism marks a mature phase of this culture that was soon to be taken over and co-opted by the militaristic Magadhans and their eventual successors the Mauryans. In particular karma may well emerge from the application of the Zoroastrian ideas about morality and the afterlife, to a widespread belief in cyclic rebirth. I suppose cyclic rebirth to be an Indian regional belief since it is almost unknown amongst Indo-European speakers outside India. The simple cycle between this world and the next, becomes differentiated first into good and bad destinations because of ideas of right & wrong; and later into a more possibilities depending on how one lived. Hell is a novel idea in India. Buddhist texts, just like the Upaniṣads, consider escaping from the rounds of rebirth to be the point of religious practices. If this idea were already developing in the Kosala-Videha region when the Upaniṣads were being written then we could see the emergence in Vedic texts as a parallel development.


  1. The Vedic texts, including the Upaniṣads discuss this process in masculine terms, and it is uncertain as to whether women were included.
  2. Following Olivelle. A literal reading would be "only brahman goes to brahman" - which seems to rely on the notion that "I am brahman" (ahaṃ brahmāsmi). Also note that it is doubtful whether women where included in this scheme, so I have not corrected the gender specific language of the texts.
  3. The earliest mention of the idea I have found is in Rhys Davids (1926) where it is cited as though it is a well established fact. Rhys Davids mentions the idea in several subsequent publications as well. Sangharakshita mentions the body, speech and mind connection in The Ten Pillars (1984), p.34. Thanks to Ratnaprabha for drawing my attention to this in a comment on Persian Influences on Buddhism (20 June 2008). Sangharakshita says that the connection occured to him while reading the Zoroastrian Gathas (personal communication 19.1.2012).
  • Boyce, Mary. 1994. 'Death. 1.' Encyclopædia Iranica. Online version.
  • Boyce, Mary. 2004. ‘Humata Hūxta Huvaršta.’ Encyclopædia Iranica. Online version.
  • Gombrich, Richard. 2009. What the Buddha Thought. London, Equinox.
  • Obeyesekere, Gananath. 2002. Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press.
  • Rhys Davids, C. A. F. 1926. ‘Man as Willer.’ Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 4: 29-44. doi: 10.1017/S0041977X00102551
  • van Geel, B. et. al. 2004a. ‘Climate change and the expansion of the Scythian culture after 850 BC: a hypothesis.’ Journal of Archaeological Science. 31 (12) December: 1735-1742. Online pdf. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2004.05.00
  • van Geel, B., Shinde, V. and Yasuda, Y., 2004b. 'Solar forcing of climate change and a monsoon-related cultural shift in western India around 800 cal. yrs. BC.' Chapter 17 in: Y. Yasuda and V. Shinde (eds) Monsoon and Civilization. Roli Books, New Delhi, p. 275-279.
  • Witzel, Michael. 1997. ‘The Development of the Vedic Canon and its Schools: The Social and Political Milieu.’ (Materials on Vedic Śākhās, 8) in Inside the Texts, Beyond the Texts. New Approaches to the Study of the Vedas. (Harvard Oriental Series. Opera Minora, vol. 2.) Cambridge 1997, 257-345. Online.
  • Witzel, Michael. 2002. [email protected], Nov. 5 and 7, 2002
  • Witzel, Michael. 2010. Indo-Eurasian_research. [Online forum.]

Note (7.7.13) I recently found this in a paper by Michael Witzel.
"Fortunately, the passage contains another clue, the frequently met with concepts of "thought-speech-action" (manas- vāc -karman), a collocation that is found not only in the Veda but also in the closely related Old Iranian texts (manah- vacas - šiiaoθna, Y 34.1-2).

- How To Enter The Vedic Mind? Strategies In Translating A Brāhma (1996) by Michael Witzel
This surely resembles body, speech and mind