Showing posts with label Vedic Studies. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vedic Studies. Show all posts

23 September 2011

In My Eye

In my eyeI'VE COMMENTED BEFORE on the episode where the Buddha speaks to Bāhiya in a post entitled "In the Seen...". He begins the famous speech with: "in the seen, only the seen; in the heard only the heard...". This is somewhat cryptic, but I noted that I had found another sutta which acts as a commentary on the Bahiya incident: The Māluṅkyaputta Sutta is in the Saṃyutta Nikāya (SN 35.95 PTS: S iv.72).

My translation of part of the text says:
Having seen a form with mindfulness [sati] forgotten,
attending to the delightful appearance;
Experiencing an impassioned mind,
and remaining attached to that;

In him numberless sensations multiply from that form,
Covetousness and worry impair thinking.
Thus suffering is heaped up and nibbāna is said to be remote.
The gist is that without mindfulness, delight in the pleasures of the senses overcomes our minds and our minds are impaired. As a result we heap up suffering and are unlikely to be liberated - we will remain in thrall to pleasure seeking. Those who are mindful, do not delight in the pleasures of the senses, do not heap up suffering, and for them nibbāna is close.

In contemporary Buddhist presentations we usually find the idea that there is something other than the "seen in the seen" attributed to Brahmins. Compare the text above with this passage from the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (CU)
atha yatraitad ākāśam anuviṣaṇṇaṃ cakṣuḥ sa cākṣuṣaḥ puruṣo darśanāya cakṣuḥ | atha yo vededaṃ jighrāṇīti sa ātmā gandhāya ghrāṇam | atha yo vededam abhivyāharāṇīti sa ātmā abhivyāhārāya vāk | atha yo vededaṃ śṛṇvānīti sa ātmā śravaṇāya śrotram || CU 8.12.4 || [1]

Where the eye gazes into space, that is the puruṣa of the eye. The eye is for seeing. The one who experiences "let me smell this" is the ātman. The nose is for smelling. The one who experiences "let me say this" is the ātman. The voice is for talking. The one who experiences "let me hear this" is the ātman. The ear is for hearing.

atha yo vededaṃ manvānīti sa ātmā | mano 'sya daivaṃ cakṣuḥ | sa vā eṣa etena daivena cakṣuṣā manasaitān kāmān paśyan ramate ya ete brahmaloke || CU 8.12.5 ||

The one who experiences "let me think this" is the ātman. Mind is its divine eye. [The ātman] sees the delights and
pleasures of the world of Brahmā, with this divine eye, the mind. [2]
Here CU is proposing that there is something other than the seen in the seen. In the seen we find 'the one who sees', which here is described as both puruṣa 'person' and ātman 'self' - the two are synonymous.[3] It is this ātman which, through the divine eye, sees the pleasures of the world of Brahmā/brahman (the word could mean either the creator god, or the universal essence; a distinction entirely lost in the Buddhist Canon). Elsewhere we find that this self is to be sought within the heart (i.e. through introspective meditation) and having once identified it, it becomes one's whole world (idaṃ sarvaṃ). The analogy I use is that when one falls in love, one's lover becomes one's whole world. We might also think of a meditator absorbed in samādhi, where the samādhi itself becomes their whole world.

Buddhist critiques of this kind of material are probably familiar to Buddhist readers. CU seems to propose that there is an 'entity' behind experience, an experiencing 'person' or 'self' which has the experiences. Discovering this self within oneself is what enables the seer to be liberated. However note that there is a discrepancy. The Brahmin does not aim to see the delights of this world. This is confirmed in many passages throughout CU as well as other Upaniṣads. Ordinary desire and the delights of this world are as much an anathema in the early Upaniṣads as they are in early Buddhist texts. The Brahmin ascetic aims at union with brahman, and thereby escape from saṃsāra. However the Buddhist criticism focusses on paying attention to delights of the senses. Is it because they deny the possibility of anything behind the senses, or have they just missed the point? I think it's not out of the question that the Buddhists simply did not understand the main points of the Upaniṣads and that the beliefs being criticised were not in fact held by Brahmins. Indeed as far as I can see such beliefs are not even attributed to Brahmins in the Pāli texts.

The Buddhist critique of ātman rests on the idea that, as an immanent aspect of brahman, it is substantial, permanent and makes us happy when we find it. Although the idea does not occur in the suttas, compare this description of nibbāna from the canonical Cūḷaniddesa:
Nibbānaṃ niccaṃ dhuvaṃ sassataṃ avipariṇāmadhammanti asaṃhīraṃ asaṃkuppaṃ.
"Nibbāna is permanent, constant, eternal, not subject to change, indomitable, unshakeable." [4]
Such a statement is common enough in Buddhism. How is this different? The essential difference here is that Buddhists assume Brahmins to be speaking literally, and take their own almost identical statements metaphorically. This assumption goes unchallenged amongst Buddhists. Why? I suggest that it is because of deep seated prejudices against, and antipathy towards, Hinduism. Our identity as Buddhists is bound up with rejecting Hinduism - even if only nominally. However I do not believe that the Brahmins were speaking literally. Rather, I'd say they were struggling to put into words their own meditation experiences, and were themselves inventing a new metaphorical language to do so, and rejecting their own 1000 year old traditions in the process. There's no a priori reason to assume unsubtly or stupidity on the part of Brahmins. In fact Brahmanical thinking of this period is scintillating and full of subtlety. A few centuries later the Buddhists of India adopted precisely the same kind of essentialist metaphor for tathāgatagarbha! Buddhists also posit a faculty other than the six senses—with no name I've been able to discover—which can discern nibbāna or "the Unconditioned" [sic] or "things as they really are". How is this different from the 'eye' which sees the brahmaloka? Note that Buddhists also adopted this Brahmanical idea of the brahmaloka, but again they took it literally. Which suggests that they simply did not understand the idea. The Buddhist criticisms of those seeking rebirth in the brahmaloka are wide of the mark, and more or less irrelevant from the point of view of the Upaniṣads. This is not to say that criticism is not possible, only that early Buddhist texts are wholly unconvincing in their criticism.

I am not suggesting that there is no difference in the doctrinal positions of Buddhism and Brahmanism. Clearly there are differences. However Buddhists have long exaggerated and distorted these differences. Modern Buddhists, like their ancient counterparts, seem largely ignorant of the Upaniṣads or the nuances in them. And as I come to better understand them myself, I am becoming increasingly doubtful about the idea that Buddhist doctrine is a reaction against Upaniṣadic Brahmanism: one can hardly react against what one is ignorant of. This raises interesting questions which I hope to address in the future.

For an inspiring and vivid account of the Brahmanical religion I heartily recommend this book:
William K. Mahoney. The Artful Universe: An Introduction to the Vedic Religious Imagination. State University of New York Press.
I must warn traditionalist Buddhists however: this book may cause you to experience sympathy and respect for Brahmins, which could be detrimental to your Buddhist faith.


  1. Chāndogya Upaniṣad. Sanskrit text from
  2. My translation follows Valerie Roebuck's which is more literal than Patrick Olivelle's.
  3. As an aside I would once again like to point out the mad way we capitalise these words when they are in a religious context. We want to say that 'Self' is somehow different from, more important than, 'self'. Capitalising suggests either something substantial (a thing), or something transcendental (beyond our ability to sense or understand). Sometimes, paradoxically, both . Neither is very helpful. The Sanskrit 'ātman' is ambiguous, and the ambiguity is part of the fun. If we try to make clear a distinction when our source text is (perhaps deliberately) ambiguous we are not doing justice to the text: ātman means 'body, and self, and the immanent aspect of brahman.' And especially in the early Upaniṣads all three meanings are found. If we try to fix it as one or other we lose nuances, and we may in fact obscure the meaning.
  4. The CST version of the Pāli Canon does not include PTS page numbers for this text. It is from the commentary on the Pārāyanānugīti gāthā from the Sutta-niptāta. CST p.201.

20 August 2010

A Parody of Vedic Belief

Professor Richard Gombrich has been at the fore-front of pointing out that late Vedic beliefs are parodied in the Buddhist scriptures. [1] He has demonstrated in a series of erudite articles that the Buddha must have known the body of teachings that underlie the early Upaniṣads - especially the Bṛhadāranyka (BU) and Chāndogya (CU). This is not to say that these actual texts would have been known to him, because most scholars believe them to be later distillations anyway (rather like the Buddhist texts), but that the beliefs we read in them were known. What kinds of evidence do we have for this thesis? I've been researching what kinds of views we find in the mouths of Brahmins in the Pāli texts and hope at some point to publish the results. My finding so far is that no Brahmin appears to espouse the kinds of views about ātman/brahman that we would associate with the Upaniṣads. However we do find something like those views being put into the words of Brahmā (i.e. God) himself for instance in the Kevaddha Sutta. [2]

In the BU 1.4.10 we find this passage (Olivelle's translation)
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: "I am brahman." As a result it became the whole. Among the gods, likewise, whosoever realized this, only they became the Whole. It was the same also among the seers and among the humans. Upon seeing this very point, the seer Vāmadeva proclaimed: "I was Manu, and I was the sun." This is true even now. If a man knows "I am Brahman" in this way, he becomes this whole world.
Anyone interested in the Sabba Sutta should pay close attention to this verse as this is also the context for that sutta - Olivelle's 'Whole' is a translation of Sanskrit sarvaṃ = Pāli sabbaṃ - but for this essay I want to draw attention to the phrase "I am brahman": ahaṃ brahmāsmi. This is seen by Vedic believers as a kind of credo. It sums up the path according to the sages of the Upaniṣads which is that the realisation that you are brahman is the highest realisation. In this realisation one becomes this whole world (sa idaṃ sarvaṃ bhavati).

In the Pāli Kevaddha Sutta the householder Kevaddha approaches the Buddha to encourage him to perform some miracles and thereby attract followers. The Buddha says that not how he operates. How he does operate is spelled out in the long passage that is repeated in all 13 of the first of the Dīgha Nikāya suttas, but this segues into a story of a monk who, desiring to know where the elements cease without remainder. In order to answer the question he attains super human states of consciousness in meditation and visits the realms of the various devas, moving up the scale until me meets Brahmā himself. Posed the question Brahma can only reply:
"ahamasmi, bhikkhu, brahmā mahābrahmā abhibhū anabhibhūto aññadatthudaso vasavattī issaro kattā nimmātā seṭṭho sajitā vasī pitā bhūtabhabyānan" ti.

"I am, bhikkhu, Brahmā, Great Brahmā, unconquered conqueror, omnipotent, Lord over all, maker and creator, the highest, controller of the cosmic order, and father of all beings past, present and future."
Note that Brahmā doesn't answer the question. It turns out that he doesn't know the answer, but has to keep up appearances because the other gods believe it is true that Brahmā is the omnipotent creator. He takes the monk to one side to explain this and point him back in the direction of the Buddha.

But notice how he starts his answer. If we leave out the 'bhikkhu' he says: ahamasmi brahmā. Compare this to the Sanskrit: ahaṃ brahmāsmi. That the Pāli is a reference to the BU, or at least to the body of teaching recorded in that text, is clear. Although the BU was not written down for many years after the Buddhist texts, the scholarly consensus is that BU represents a body of teachings that predate the Buddha by several centuries. Given the flexibility of syntax in the two languages we are looking at the same statement. Exactly the same except that the Sanskrit has an ambiguity - brahmāsmi can be read as brahma asmi or brahmā asmi i.e. as the neuter or masculine. The first is the abstract universal essence of the cosmos that manifests as ātman in the individual; the second is the masculine creator god. The first usage in BĀU 1.4.10 is the context of a neuter pronoun 'it' (tad), while the second is in the context of a masculine pronoun 'him' (sa), so both senses could be being used here! Gombrich observes that the Buddha has selected the less abstract, and therefore less sophisticated, of the two, i.e. Brahmā as creator god, and that this helps to contribute to the overall sense of this being not just a polemic, but a parody. Johannes Bronkhorst has been very critical of Gombrich's interpretation of this kind of reference as evidence of the Buddha's sense of humour, [3] but personally I think this example is funny. On the one hand the realisation "I am Brahmā" encapsulates the highest goals of religion; and on the other the statement is just an egotistical and deluded claim with no basis.

The ideal of union with Brahmā (brahmasahavyatā) is also found in the Tevijja Sutta (DN 13) where we find the Buddha informing some hapless Brahmins Vāseṭṭha and Bhāradvaja [4] that though there own teachers are ignorant of the way leading to this goal, that:
brahmānaṃ cāhaṃ, vāseṭṭha, pajānāmi brahmalokañca brahmalokagāminiñca paṭipadaṃ
I know Brahmā, Vāseṭṭha, and Brahmā's domain, and the way leading to Brahmā's domain.
The Buddha then teaches the meditations we have come to know as the brahmavihāra 'dwelling with Brahmā', though the name is not used here. Brahmavihāra is actually a synonym of brahmasahavyatā. It would be like walking into a Christian church and asking "How many of your priests have been face to face with God? None? I have, and I can tell you how to be in His presence. You don't have to die and go to heaven, you can dwell in heaven right now!" - and teaching the mettābhāvanā! I've often wondered what would happen if we took the Buddha's approach to theistic religion. Forget about opposition and proving that God exists, but just roll with it and teach Buddhism in Christian terms. I think most of us are too afraid of losing our religion, and perhaps lack confidence in our methods, to even try this. And, of course, it would require one to be truthfully in that state of dwelling with God (brahmavihāra). But it is what the Buddha appears to have done.

To those people who claim that Buddhism is a religion which tolerates all views this must come as a shock. Not only did the Buddha not tolerate wrong views, he actively went about subverting them and making fun of people who held them. There are times when the Buddha of the Pāli Canon makes Richard Dawkins seem like an appeaser.

  1. Professor Gombrich's contribution is summed up in his book What the Buddha Thought. References to his individual papers can be found there. The observations I make here has been observed by him previously, but I'm putting them in my own words.
  2. also Kevaṭṭa Sutta. Dīgha Nikāya 11. PTS D i.211. Translation that follows is mine. Pāli text from CST.
  3. Especially in his book Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India.
  4. These two show up in various retellings of this story at e.g. DN 13, MN 98, and Sn 3.9. I haven't yet done a detailed comparison, but I'm working on it.
image: Brahmā from

09 October 2009

Dharma - early history

Dharma in various scriptsThis is the first of a series of three essays in which I will attempt to summarise recent research on the word dharma (Pāli dhamma). Perhaps more than any other term it is synonymous with religion in India. And yet, or perhaps because of this, the term itself is so polysemic as to defy translation in less than 6 or 7 distinct and unrelated English words. In 2004 the Journal of Indian Philosophy commissioned a series of articles by the leading scholars in their fields looking at the philology and philosophies (not to say religions and ideologies) associated with this mysterious word. This first essay will focus on the philology and use of the term in Vedic, a second will look at the breadth of it's use in Buddhism, and a third will examine the subtle shift over time in the way that dharma as mental event was conceived by Buddhists. Be warned that several hundred pages of journal articles could not exhaust this subject, and three books solely on dharma in Buddhist usage have already been written. At best I can gloss the observations of scholars and refer anyone interested to the relevant publications.

The roots of the word are the least ambiguous or disputed aspect of it so we can begin quite simply. Dharma is derived from the verbal root √dhṛ ' to hold, to bear, to carry'. The basic verb form is dharati - the root takes the guṇa and the stem becomes dhar-. The derivative dhárman [1] is a neuter verbal noun, with the addition of the suffix -man, and means 'support, foundation'. It is this form - dhárman - which corresponds to Classical Sanskrit 'dharma' which we are interested in (note that Pāli collapses the conjunct rma into the double consonant mma to give us 'dhamma'). Dharma only occurs 67 times in the Ṛg Veda (RV) and only used 65 times in the rest of the vast Vedic corpus including the Upaniṣads. This suggests it is a minor term, of dwindling importance - a fact that must be explained given the centrality of the term in Indian religion today!

Dharma has no cognate words in other Indo-European (IE) languages which means that it does not predate the migration of IE languages into India, but is an Indian coinage. This helps us to understand how it was used in RV because it's use is closely related to its it's original meaning of 'foundation'. In particular it is associated with the holding apart of the earth and sky in cosmogonic myths. It is also associated with orderliness - more often expressed in Vedic by the term ṛta - and with the god Varuṇa who oversaw ṛta and was a keeper of the law (cosmic and social though the distinction was not always clear). Varuṇa is sometimes called Dharmapati or Law Lord. In the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa [2] the king is equated with Varuṇa. In some of the early (pre-Buddhist) Upaniṣads dharma is what gives the ruler his power - it is the "kṣatrasya kṣatram" or 'ruling power of ruling power'.

Olivelle has counted the number of times the word occurs in the Vedic canon and finds that after 60+ occurrences in the Ṛgveda it is used less in the rest of the canon put together - making it very much a minority term. However the word 'mantra' seldom occurs in the Ṛgveda (only 13 times!) and as Ellison Banks Findly has pointed out "...inattention to a term in the Ṛgveda does not always mean inattention to the corresponding subject". Indeed we find all of the many concepts which 'dharma' later covers - such as order, nature, quality (especially good quality), and law - are all central themes in the Ṛgveda. What we need to explain is how the word dharma came to stand for these other concepts.

Olivelle argues that the adoption of the word dharma is as part of an appropriation of royal symbolism by groups of śramaṇas, who he sees as offshoots of the Brahmins. As I noted in Rethinking Indian History this latter paradigm has recently been challenged and it may suit Olivelle's thesis even better to think of the śramaṇa groups as emerging from a distinct culture and the Brahmins encroaching on their territory as they moved East into Magadha from their heartland north of present-day Delhi. Perhaps they adopted the symbols and language of royalty in order to enhance their prestige in the face of the Brahmin threat to their hegemony? In any case the leaders of śramaṇa groups refer to themselves as 'jina' (conqueror) and 'cakravartin' (wheel-roller - a reference to the wheel of the royal chariot rolling over conquered territory - not to say conquered enemies) [3]. Their teachings are known as śāsana (Pāli sāsana) - the counterpart of a royal edict (from √śās 'to chastise, to command') . Dharma, with it associations of law and lawfulness also partake, according to Olivelle, in this appropriation. While this explains how 'dharma' might have come into use amongst the religious, it doesn't explain the process of accumulation of senses of the word. Since orderliness, adherence to laws and therefore lawfulness, is associated with the king, perhaps this gives us some suggestion about that sense.

According to Tilmann Vetter the earliest Buddhist usage of dharma associated it with other teachers only, and the Buddha encourages his followers not to accept any dharma. [4] However it appears that if he was not disposed to use the term, he did not hold out very long as dharma soon became central to the Buddha's message. In Buddhist usage dharman (neuter) becomes dharmaḥ (masculine; Pāli dhammo). Technically the masculine form is an action noun meaning 'bearer', but already the scope of what it refers to is considerably broadened. This will be the subject of my next post.

  1. Vedic was a language with (raised) pitch accents instead of stress accents as we use in English. These are marked with an acute in Roman script. Compare dhárman (neuter verbal noun meaning 'foundation') and dharmán (masculine action noun meaning 'bearer'). Classical Sanskrit uses stress rather than pitch accents.
  2. Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa is an multi-volume exegetical text which comments on many aspects of the sacrificial ritual. It is related to the Yajurveda, being composed after it but before the time of the Buddha. The last book of the ŚB circulates separately as the Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad.
  3. A vivid depiction of this kind of warfare can be found in the Mesopotamian galleries of the British Museum which shows 8-7th century BCE Persian kings fighting from two-wheeled chariots. I may be mistaken but it seems to me that there are 4, 6 and 8 spoked wheels on various vehicles: those with 4 appear to be agricultural; 6 for general war chariots; and 8 for the king.
  4. This argument is based on texts from the Sutta Nipāta which are generally considered to be the earliest layer of the Pāli canon. Vetter argues for even more specificity identifying texts which he considers to in fact be "pre-Buddhist".


  • Brereton, Joel. 2004. 'Dhárman in the Ṛgveda.' Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 449–489.
  • Findly, Ellison Banks. 1989. 'Mántra Kaviśatrá: Speech as Performative in the Ṛgveda.' in Alper, Harvey P. Mantra. State University of New York Press. (esp p.15-16)
  • Olivelle, Patrick. 2005. Power of Words: The Ascetic Appropriation and the Semantic Evolution of Dharma.' in Language, Texts and Society : Explorations in Ancient Indian Culture and Religion. Firenze University Press.
  • Olivelle, Patrick. 2004. 'The Semantic History of Dharma The Middle and Late Vedic Periods." Journal of Indian Philosophy 32: 491–511
  • Vetter, Tilmann. 1990. Some Remarks on Older Parts of the Suttanipāta. Earliest Buddhism and Mādhyamika. Panels of the VII World Sanskrit Conference. D. S. Ruegg & L. Schmithausen (eds.). Leiden: E. J. Brill, pp. 36-56.

image: dharma in various scripts: Devanāgarī, dbu can, Ranjana, Sinhala.

30 January 2009

Rethinking Indian History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12 December 2008

The spiritual life or Brahmacarya

Linguists study language in one of two basic ways. They look at language through time, how it changes, and the processes that drive and inform that change. This is called a diachronic approach - 'dia-' meaning 'across'. When applied to what a particular word means we usually refer to this kind of study as etymology. The etymology of the word 'etymology' tells us that the two parts mean: true (eteos) word (logia) and the sense of it is that it reveals the true meaning of the word. [Note the parallel with the Japanese word for mantra: shingon = true word] Or linguists study what language does now, what things mean in the context of the present and in a particular place. This approach is called synchronic - 'syn-' meaning 'together'. Ironically the history of a word can be entirely irrelevant to what it means now. Consider the contemporary meaning of the word 'terrific' which originally meant terrifying!

Just as one can study what a word means these way, we can study what an idea means. In this post I plan to do a potted history of an idea which I am representing by the phrase "spiritual life" in English which equates with the Sanskrit word brahmacarya (it is the same in Pāli). We can begin with an etymology. Brahmacarya is a compound combining the elements brahma and carya. 'Brahma' is the uninflected form of the noun, as we expect in a Sanskrit compound. So it can mean either the transcendent principle of the universe, brahman (neuter tense), or the more concrete manifestation of the creator God, Brahmā (masculine tense). It's important to realise that these two are not necessarily synonymous. Carya more literally means "going about, wandering, walking or roaming, visiting, driving", and in its applied sense means "behaviour, conduct; practising, performing, occupation with, engaging in". The word brahmacarya is used in relation to a number of ideas, and how we understand it depends to a large extent on what time and place we are talking about.

In the early days of the Vedic religion the sages often were faced with, or posed each other, puzzles of a metaphysical nature: for instance they wondered on what did the creator stand when he created the world? Answers to these puzzles were known as brahmans. The Ṛgveda contains many puzzles, and many brahmans. The ancient Vedic world view was one in which the world was wondrous and ordered by a mysterious cosmic principle that they called ṛta. Everything in the world was interconnected and participated in this cosmic order, and maintenance of the cosmic order was a joint project between the gods and the priests. So a brahman was like an insight into the cosmic order. The Vedics also believed that such insights, especially insights into the connections (bandhu) between this world and heaven were important for understanding, and therefore maintaining ṛta. The functional aspect of the Vedic religion was the act of sacrifice, with the sacrificial fire (agni) being the medium of exchange between this world and heaven - such commerce being essential for maintaining ṛta.

Perhaps due to the changing social circumstances - for instance the discovery and use of iron that helped to transform the Ganges plain from forest to farmland - priests began to reflect on their function. In particular they began to believe that it was possible to abstract the sacrificial ritual and perform it in imagination. The texts in which these ideas were first composed were commentaries on the Saṃhita portions of the Vedas and were called brāhmaṇa. Confusingly the priests themselves were now also called brāhmaṇas - I use the Anglacized Brahmin to talk about the priests. It was perhaps at this time that the cosmic order ṛta was reconceptualised as dharma - which can mean both 'nature' and 'duty' thus incorporating similar concepts, but moving in a new direction.

Not long before the Buddha this movement to think about things, to create abstractions, and to work in the imagination, took form in the Upaniṣadic or Vedantic traditions (although the latter terms seems to have come along much later). It is in the Upaniṣads that we meet with the two conceptions I mentioned above: brahman the abstract transcendental principle; and Brahmā the creator god. Of course at this time there are also recorded many other religious traditions, indeed if we read history right there was an explosion of new ideas around this time that coincided with similar processes in other parts of the world. The period has been called the Axial Age. The non-Brahmin sectarians were called śramaṇas - from the root śram meaning to work or toil. Incidentally some linguists think this word śramaṇa comes into English, via Asian and Russian intermediaries, as the word shaman (more on this in a future post).

In this early Upaniṣadic period (also known as the "Late Vedic period") a Brahmin man is described as going through several stages in life or āśramas (incidental from the same root śram). Women are not part of this picture. Different texts describe different numbers of stages, and some see them not as a sequence but as different possible lifestyles, however all seem to include brahmacarya. Taken as a sequence in the early stage of life one was unmarried and this, even today in Indian, is synonymous with being celibate. However celibacy was probably initially incidental for unmarried men, and the importance of this phase of life was that it involved learning and study. The ideal was for a son to study with his father. However some students went to live and study with teachers, and some even wandered from place to place and teacher to teacher. The object of study was still considered to be the Vedas and their associated rituals, but may have included the śastric branches of knowledge as well such as grammar, mathematics and astrology. Conformation of this basic set up are found in early Buddhist texts which frequently refer to Brahmins as well versed in the Vedas and other Brahminical studies. After this period of learning the Brahmin youth might stay with his teacher, but more usually was expected to return home and marry, produce more sons and in turn educate them in the Brahminical lore and procedures.

The Buddha was to some extent limited in how he got his ideas across by the language of the day. Sometimes he simply used existing terms unchanged (eg. tapas asceticism) and sometimes he attempted to redefine a word as in the case of dharma and in this case of brahmacarya. In fact the Buddha attempted to totally redefine the concept of what a Brahmin is - linking it to behaviour rather than birthright. Clearly this latter project failed, but we have inherited this word brahmacarya.

In the early Buddhist texts brahmacarya keeps virtually the same reference, but loses the any sense of sequence. Anyone who is undertaking some kind of spiritual or religious training could be referred to as a brahmacarin. It's quite a common usage in the canon. All bhikkhus were undertaking brahmacarya because they undertake religious vows, study sacred texts, and undertake various religious and ascetic practices. However at some point - and I'm not sure when this happened - the word came to have the much narrower meaning of 'chastity' that is the abstention from any kind of sexual activity (and the vinaya is explicit and exhaustive in proscribing forms of sex!). It's ironic that what was originally a mere coincidence because of the rigid social structures which required that there be no sex before marriage, is not the most important feature of the lifestyle.

To some extent the WBO has revalorised the word, broadening it our again to mean one who doesn't indulge the pleasures of the senses. Someone who undertakes a vow of brahmacarya does refrain from sexual activity, but also undertakes to avoid over stimulating themselves in other ways as well. They may also express this by trying to let go of personal preferences. Someone who takes a life vow of brahmacarya is known in our order an an anagarika. This means one (-ka) who does not have (an-) a home (agara). So another feature of their lives is that they try to minimise possessions and this is usually interpreted especially as including not owning real-estate.

image: from a post on celibacy by Shravasti Dhammika on his blog Dhamma Musings.

04 July 2008

Non-lexical utterances, stobhas, and mantra

In researching the background to Buddhist mantra I inevitably began to read about Vedic mantra. There is a lot more research on Vedic mantra and on the whole it is more interesting than research on Buddhist mantra, so far. Reading up on the Vedic tradition has given me an appreciation of the Vedic literature which is of surpassing beauty and profundity at times. I think we Buddhists tend to write off the other Indian scriptures but that is our loss. The Vedic tradition stands in relation to Indian culture rather like the Ancient Greeks do to Europe.

If you do read up on Vedic mantras you will find that mantra originally meant one of the hymns to the gods as exemplified and recorded in the Ṛgveda. The date of this text is disputed rather vigorously and sometimes hotly, but it seems likely that it was compiled around 1500-1200 BCE, probably out of an already existing oral literature. As the verses (or ṛk) began to be used ritually two things happened. Firstly an exegetic literature began to be composed to explain how, where, and when to use the verses in the rituals; and secondly the verses themselves were reframed. For my purpose today I want to draw attention to the Sāmaveda which reframes the Ṛgvedic verses by setting them to music. Verses sung or chanted to these rhythms and tunes as called sāman.

One of the key features of sāmans is the insertion of syllables to alter the metre of the original. These syllables are called stobha. Stobha can be one or two syllables. One list of stobha is:
ā (e)re hā-u is phat as hā hṃ iṭ pnya auhovā hahas ho-i kāhvau um bhā hai hum kit up dada hā-i hup mṛ vava (e)bṛ ham hvau nam vo-I (e)rā has ihi om (Staal Vedic Mantras p.61)
Recently I was revisiting some websites about the sounds that people make during conversations - which the researchers call "non-lexical utterances" or "conversational grunts". The interest in these sounds came out of research into human-computer interfaces. Here is a list of non-lexical utterances on one site:
ai hh-aaaah iiyeah okay nuuuuu ukay uam uumm yeahh am hhh m-hm okay-hh nyaa-haao um uh uun yeahuuh neeu ao hhh-uuuh mm ooa nyeah um-hm-uh-hm uh-hn uuuh yegh nuu aoo hhn mm-hm ookay o-w umm uh-hn-uh-hn uuuuuuu yeh-yeah ohh aum hmm mm-mm oooh oa ummum uh-huh wow yei yeah eah hmmmmm mmm ooooh oh unkay uh-mm yah-yeah yo ehh hn myeah oop-ep-oop oh-eh unununu uh-uh ye yyeah achh h-nmm hn-hn nn-hn u-kay oh-kay uu uh-uhmmm yeah ah haah huh nn-nnn u-uh oh-okay uuh uhh yeah-okay ahh hh i nu u-uun oh-yeah uum uhhh yeah-yeah (Reponsive Systems Project)
The list could be supplemented from popular music (think James Brown for instance!), or for that matter from serious vocal music, which also use non-lexical syllables to pad sentences or verses to fit a metre. These non-lexical sounds function as feedback to the speaker, and are uttered in concert with the speaker in order to let them know that they are being heard and understood. A lot (but not all) of the information conveyed by these non-lexical sounds is contained in the prosodic aspects of speech - tone of voice, inflection - along with non-verbal signals such as facial expression, hand gestures, and body posture. These can indicate the attitude of the listener to what is being said, and how they feel about it.

While we cannot confirm this, it seems reasonable to surmise that stobhas were drawn from non-lexical sounds amongst Vedic speakers at the time. This further suggests that stobhas not only help a verse to conform to a metre or rhythm, but may also have served another pragmatic function when chanted in sāmans. They may have been imitating prosodic elements of speakers of the time, incorporating information about responses to the sāman within it. It may be possible for a suitably qualified person to test this idea.

It is the conclusion of some researchers into mantra, Fritz Staal being the leading light, that because mantra contain non-lexical sounds, that they are "meaningless". We would have to agree that sounds like oṃ, āḥ, and hūṃ do not have dictionary definitions, they do not refer to any "thing". However it's clear that Staal et al have been too narrowly focussed on semantics. Languistics may be focussed on words, but human communication involves very much more, and a great deal of communication may take place without any words at all. We can even make words mean the opposite of their dictionary meanin: I can say "I like your new haircut", while implying the exact opposite in an unequivocal way through the use of facial expression and vocal inflection for instance. (This is known technically as conversational implicature)

After the Ṛgvedic period mantras began to make more use of non-lexical sounds. Staal sees this as a persistence of primitive pre-linguistic sounds into the present: they are like bird song, animal noises, or the burbling of infants, and quite meaningless. They are the caveman grunts of popular imagination, retained by Indian religious leaders for ritual purposes. If we for a moment accept Staal's hypothesis his analysis of those kinds of sounds is grossly oversimplified since all three of these phenomena are far from meaningless if one knows how to listen. Worse still Staal appears to be making some unfortunate, rather "orientalist", implications about the subjects of his studies. This inelegant hypothesis is untestable, and does not open the way to further research. It certainly does not chime with the experience of mantra. Kūkai goes to the other extreme and counts every mantric syllable as being infinitely meaningful, and being the starting point for elucidating all knowledge and experience. In this he is adopting a world view which has its basis in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. A full explanation of Kūkai idea deserves it's own essay, and goes beyond what I am suggesting here. Not that I disagree, but I am looking for intermediate steps that make sense in a contemporary context.

Stobhas used in sāmans may well have been the model for the use of non-lexical syllables in mantra although this would be difficult to prove. They do bear a resemblance to non-lexical sounds used meaningfully in conversation by contemporary English speakers (and others). But even if they did not what it suggests to me is that we can look for meaning in ways that might not be obvious, and still not have to stray into metaphysics and mysticism. It may be that no explanation in these terms can fully comprehend mantra. That is not a problem. But in attempting such an explanation I think we can shed a lot more light on this subject, and make it more accessible in the process. The "mantras are meaningless" mantra is a dead end as far as research goes, and as far as elucidating the persistence of mantra over several millennia in Indian religious contexts.

image: The Reading Genie - "Say ah!"

27 June 2008

Mantra, Magic, and Interconnectedness.

At the heart of the practice of mantra is the idea that everything is interconnected. Although the idea is not apparent in early Buddhist teachings it is strongly associated with the Mahāyāna Avataṃsaka Sūtra, and with the Buddhism that centres around it, often known by the Chinese equivalent: Huayen. The Avataṃsaka coalesced in the 3rd century though it is thought to be a composite work that accumulated parts over time. However the idea that everything is interconnected was not new to India at the time, but goes back to the earliest religious text: the Ṛg Veda.

In the Vedas the cosmos is divided into three realms: human, god, and intermediate or sky. The earliest gods were personifications of the awesome forces of nature: the sun, storms, and fire... The ancients believed, for instance, that a single principle linked all things which were hot or bright: the sun, fire, digestion, and even the spark of imagination. This particular principle was called Agni - sometimes referred to as the "god" of fire. Even in our technologically advanced times we are still subject to nature (think global warming!): how much more so were our ancient forebears! They desired control over the sun and the monsoons, and developed a kind of magic technology for doing so. The very early Vedic poets acted as shamans who were directly in contact with the gods and the Vedic hymns are records of their conversations with the gods, or their prayers to them. They became the keepers of the the sacred fire. The Agni was the hermetic messenger and fire was an exchange medium: sacrifices were transformed by the fire into smoke, and this was carried upwards to the gods who could consume it in that form. In return the gods were compelled to respond favourably.

The key to effective rituals was the "bandhu" or connection between this world and the god realm. By manipulating the bandhu at this end, changes could be wrought at the other end. The priests were masters of the bandhu, and a great deal of the vast exegetical literature on the Vedas is devoted to listing or explaining bandhu. As with many ancient cultures knowledge at this time was based on resemblance and relationship; our own approach to knowledge relies on difference and isolation. A bandhu worked because something in this world resembled something in the other world. It can be difficult for us moderns to understand this, as we are attuned to seeing differences. To the ancients a metaphor might have seemed far more substantial for instance: they would never have said, as we might, that it's "just a metaphor". They understood the concept of metaphor, but took the relationship to be far more substantial than we do.

The late Vedic period saw the internalisation of the rituals, which were then carried out in imagination - thereby inventing meditation. The Buddha was born into this time, and studied for a time with Late Vedic sages, known as śramaṇas. The Buddha explicitly rejected the various forms of Vedic ritual, both external and internal, and substituted his own practices which emphasise a balance of blissful tranquillity and penetrating insight. Although he taught that all experiences arise from causes, he did not make the link between all experiences to explicitly talk about interconnectedness.

By the 3rd century some Buddhists were using the kinds of images of interconnectedness that have become familiar - Indra's net of jewels which each reflect all of the others for instance. In the 6th century a great synthesis of religious ideas occurred, partly in response to a breakdown in social and political order as the Gupta Empire was smashed by the Huns. Many of the old Vedic ideas were assimilated into Buddhism and key amongst these was the idea of bandhu. One sees this, for instance, in the Tantric explanation of the Avalokiteśvara mantra. The syllables are not considered as linguistic units, but as representing the six realms of existence, and the six manifestations of the Bodhisattva in those realms, etc.

It can be difficult for us to see how this medieval Indian idea makes sense. In "The End of Magic" Ariel Glucklich describes his research amongst the Tantric magicians of present day Benares. Working through the various Western ideological explanations of magic he rejects them all in favour of an explanation which relies on a sense of interconnectedness. Having done field work amongst Tantric healers in Banares, Glucklich concludes that:
Magic is based on a unique type of consciousness: the awareness of the interrelatedness of all things in the world by means of simple but refined sense perception... magical actions... constitute a direct, ritual way of restoring the experience of relatedness in cases where that experience has been broken by disease, drought, war, or any number of other events. (The End Of Magic, p.12)
I think that Glucklich has had a penetrating insight in this statement and one that we can relate back to Tantric Buddhism generally. Crucially to my mind he insists that what he calls the magical experience is neither a mystical nor a metaphysical concept.
It is a natural phenomenon, the product of our evolution as a human species and an acquired ability for adapting to various ecological and social environments. (The End Of Magic, p.12)
Some work remains to be done to adapt Glucklich's work to the Buddhist context: we need to see it in the light of Buddhist psychology for instance, and the Buddhist view of reality and experience; and we also need to make clear how mantra works in this framework. I am confident that it can be done because at the heart of the matter is interrelatedness.


image: my Facebook "friend wheel"

16 May 2008

Playing with Fire

I've made several references over the last year and a half to the Numata lectures by Professor Richard Gombrich in 2006. These are in the process of being published as a book. I have been re-reading the notes from those lectures and wanted to highlight lecture seven which discussed the use of fire as a metaphor by the Buddha.

Anyone familiar with the discourses of the Buddha will most likely have clocked that the Buddha uses fire as a metaphor in several different ways. Most notably there is the fire sermon (Āditta-pariyāya, Vin i.34-5) in which the Buddha tells the monks that "everything is on fire". What the Buddha means by "everything" is the five sense faculties and the mind, the objects of our senses, and the whole psychological process of experience. What he means by "on fire" is that we our experience is burning with desire, with hatred, and with spiritual ignorance. The goal of the Buddhist path is nibbāna (Sanskrit nirvāṇa) which means quite literally the blowing out of a flame, or ceasing to burn.

This much is consonant with the received tradition. However Prof. Gombrich has investigated other aspects of this fire metaphor. One of the most interesting related to the nidāna chain - the 12 membered list of factors which condition each other and are said to describe the process of repeated becoming in saṃsara. As part of this list we find that desire (taṇhā) gives rise to "clinging" (upādāna), which in turn is what gives rise to becoming (bhavanā). Gombrich suggests that the word upādāna might well have originally been used in it's more concrete sense of "fuel". In this view clinging would be fuel for becoming, and in my opinion this works much better as an explanation of process. Thus the nidāna chain is a continuation of the fire metaphor into the process of dependent arising.

Upādāna is also used in describing the whole of our psycho-physical experience. The khandhas (Sanskrit skandha) are referred to at times as the five aggregates of clinging (pañca-upādāna-kkhandhā). This is an awkward phrase. It makes no more sense, apparently, in Pāli than the translation does in English. Gombrich notes that there is a common Pāli expression for a blazing fire: aggi-khandha. He suggests that upādāna-kkhandha should be read as a contraction of upādāna-aggi-kkhandha and be translated as blazing masses of fuel. The khandas in other words are an extension of the Buddha's use of the fire metaphor. They are the fuel for the burning desire that prolongs our existence.

The Vedic religion was one in which fire played a central role. There is evidence that fire worship goes back well beyond the entry of the Vedic speaking peoples into India. Fire was very much part of the religious imagination of India by the time of the Buddha, and Gombrich argues that it is from this source that the Buddha draws for his fire metaphor. The key evidence here is a difficult paper by Polish academic Joanna Jurewicz which draws parallels between the terms used in the nidāna chain and certain concepts central to the Vedic religion. Professor Jurewicz argues that the Pāli nidāna model can be seen as a polemic against the Vedic cosmogony. The paper is a not easy to follow: ideally one would be well versed in Vedic language and religion as well as Pāli, but it is very interesting, and Professor Gombrich considers the case to have been demonstrated for some kind of influence.

The primary metaphor for consciousness in the Vedic tradition is fire, hence the Buddha framed his understanding of consciousness in similar terms. But whereas the late Vedic tradition contained a notion of absolute consciousness, the Buddha claimed that there is only consciousness of something: like fire consciousness requires fuel to continue, but also crucially despite being a non-random process (i.e. without fuel there can be no fire) fire operates with no guiding "person" behind it.

This is a brief overview of a more technical and thorough discussion by Professor Gombrich. It continues the theme of looking at the way the Buddha drew on the traditions surrounding him, especially the Vedic tradition, of images and concepts with which to communicate his Insight. It also reassesses the way the received tradition explains some technical terms. What Professor Gombrich has shown on more than one occasion is that the received tradition is confused on some points of doctrine or linguistics. This is important for contemporary Buddhists. It emphasises that the Buddhist texts are not divine revelation, they are no infallible and we must be wary of an over literal interpretation of them. In particular where the Buddha used metaphors drawn from the Vedic traditions, there have often be misunderstood by later Buddhists, even in some cases before the canon was written down. Doctrines must be tested against experience.


29 June 2007

Indra in the Writings of Kukai

Indra on Elephant back weilding his VajraIn this article I want to look at some associations with the Vedic god Indra which have found their way into Buddhism. Indra, under the name Sakka, is a frequent character in the Pali texts, and plays an active and positive role in the Jatakas. Although Buddhists acknowledge no creator god, no supreme being on the model of Jehovah, gods do play an important role in the Buddhist religion.

My starting point will be two mentions of Indra by the 9th century Japanese master Kukai, who I've written about on several previous occasions. In Kukai's writing there are several references to Indra. He uses the image of Indra's Net frequently. It comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra where it conveys the idea of the interpenetration of all things by all things, that is central to Kukai's understanding of the Dharma. I want to pass over this image, however, and look at two other references which are quite different in nature and relate to Indra's role as a god of speech.

The two references are found in Hakeda's translations of Kukai's major works. In the Shoji jisso gi, or Meaning of Sound, Word, and Reality Kukai quotes a verse from the Mahavairocana Sutra:
The perfectly Enlightened One's mantras Are made up of syllables, names, or clauses; Like the statements of Indra, They are meaningful and effective.[1]
Then in the Ungi gi Kukai is discusssing the meanings of the phonemes which make up the seed syllable hum (ie hūṃ) and says:
Next, if interpreting from the point of view of their common features, it can be stated that each letter embraces the universe principle, all the teachings, religious practices, and attainments, just as [each word in the grammatical] statements made by Indra contains many meanings...[2]
In the first instance Kukai explains away the presence of Indra as an authority on truth by equating the name with a secular Sanskrit grammarian known as Shakradeva. This is plausible, but I think there is a better explanation. In the Shatapatha-Brahmana there is a sory about Indra defeating the demon Vritra. Indra is cheated out of part of his reward by the messenger god Vayu, and as a result decides to make only one fourth of speech, that is the vocal sounds of humans only, intelligible. The speech of birds, animals, and insects are therefore unintelligible.[3] Beck points out that this is a reworking of a Rigvedic myth which reinforces Indra's role as grammarian, or as the god responsible for making Vac comprehensible. Later, although still prebuddhist, in Chandogya Upanishad it says "all vowels are embodiments of Indra" (CU ii.24.3). It seems as though Indra maintained this function in the Mahavairocana Sutra, although this does not sit well with Kukai.

The second idea, that things said by Indra can have many meanings, also harks back to Vedic literature. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.2 shows another Vedic god, Prajapati, conversing with gods, humans, and demons. In answer to questions from each he merely says "da". By this the gods understand daamayata (self-control); humans datta (giving); and demons dayadhvam (compassion). The short section ends with the words
This is what the divine voice that is thunder repeats: 'DA DA DA', 'Be self-controlled! Give! Be compassionate![4]
Now although it is said to be Prajapati speaking it is very clear in Vedic myth that thunder is associated with Indra. Indeed one could say that for the Vedic speaking people Indra was thunder. So this would seem to be one of those cases, common in Indian texts, where one god has assumed the attributes of another. Further more we see the idea that a single syllable can have very different meanings - a phenomena modern scholars call polysemy (from the Greek = multiple meaning). This is precisely what Kukai is exploring in the Ungi gi. Kukai allows for infinite meanings, not only for hum itself, but for each of it's constituent parts.

Later on Indra's role as Vagishvara - or lord of Speech - was taken over by the bodhisattva Manjusri who, in early Chinese imagery, is sometimes depicted as riding a white elephant, just as Indra does. Manjusri has yet to take up this role in 9th century Japan. It is possible that had not occured even in China, which is the likely home of the cult of Manjusri. As the original wielder of the thunderbolt or vajra, Indra is also a model for Vajrapani.

Portrayals of Indra in Buddhist and Vedic literature do seem to vary quite a bit. So much so that Rhys Davids was moved to write in his Dictionary:
Europeans have found a strange difficulty in understanding the real relation of Sakka to Indra... Sakka belongs only to Buddhist mythology then being built up. He is not only quite different from Indra, but is the direct contrary of that blustering, drunken, was god.[5]
As I have said, Indra, often plays a positive role in the Jatakas, and is often shown payin homage to the Buddha. He appears to be a representative of the old Vedic gods, and is often paired with Brahma representing the later Vedantic gods.

Even in this brief treatment I think you can see that the Vedic Indra did indeed find his way into Buddhism and that these two roles - the one who makes things meaningful, and the one who allows for polysemy - are present in the writing of Kukai in 9th century Japan. These things are impossible to prove of course, and there may be some 'black swan' piece of evidence waiting out there to show the theory to be wrong, but the precedents existed and Buddhists have a long history of borrowing from their surrounding culture, so the circumstantial case is quite good.


[1] Hakeda. Kukai : Major Works. p. 238
[2] Hakeda. p. 259
[3] quoted in Beck, Guy. Sonic Theology. p.26.
[4] Roebuck, Valerie J. The Upanisads. p82 (BU 5.2.3)
[5] Rhys-Davids, Pali-English Dictionary. sv Inda, p.121.

image: Indra (with vajra) and consort on elephant. Keshava Temple, Somnathpur.