Showing posts with label Zoroastrianism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Zoroastrianism. Show all posts

10 July 2015

Who Were the Artharvans?

the first 
In this essay I look for possible connections between the Sanskrit Atharvans (Pāḷi ātabbaṇa) and the Iranian aθauruuan or āθravan. The few references to ātabbaṇa in Pāḷi, in the Suttanipāta and its (Canonical) commentaries, portray them has hostile wizards and trouble makers. This is in stark contrast to how Vedic texts saw them, and of course Brahmins adopted Atharva text as an honorary Veda by about 300 BCE. The Iranian aθauruuan is a Zoroastrian missionary who spends time travelling, teaching about the religion, and making converts.

It's fairly well known that the Buddhist texts make repeated reference to the three Vedas. The Tevijjā Sutta (DN 13) is the one text that gives us some sense of which Vedas might have been around in the early Buddhist milieu. It lists different kinds of Brahmins who teach different paths: “Various Brahmins—addhariya, tittiriya, chandoka, and bavhārijjha Brahmins—all teach a way out for one seeking merger with Brahmā.” (D i.238). Jayatilleke (1963) shows that these names correspond to the Sanskrit: adhvaryus, taittirīya, chāndogya, and bahvṛca.  These are in turn associated with Śatapatha, Taittirīya, Chāndogya, and Bahvṛca Brāhmaṇa texts respectively. The Bahvṛca Brāhmaṇa is now lost, but appears to have been related to the Aitareya and Kauṣītaki Brāhmaṇas. These four Brāhmaṇa texts in turn are associated with the White Yajurveda, the Black Yajurveda, the Sāmaveda, and the Ṛgveda. (Jayatilleke 1963: 479-480).

Originally only three vedas were canonical. For instance in the Sela Sutta (MN 92), the Brahmin Sela is said to be “well versed in the three vedas”.  This is a pericope, or stock formula for describing a ‘good Brahmin’, which occurs many places. Julius Lipner (1994) suggests that by about 400-300 BCE the Atharvaveda had been included in the Vedic canon to make the traditional four vedas. Even earlier, both Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad and Chāndogya Upaniṣad (ca. 800-600 BCE) have a more tolerant attitude to the Atharvaveda than do the Pāli texts. At CU 7.1 the “atharvan” is included amongst the Vedas, and at BU 2.4.10 & 4.5.11 the mantras of the Atharvans and Aṅgirases are included in a list of things to be learned, though not labelled ‘veda’. In Signe Cohen's account of the internecine conflicts between Brahmanical groups, BU represents the more progressive faction, living well east of the Kurukṣetra (in the region of Kosala) and championing the authority of the Yajurveda; whereas CU represents a more conservative faction, living within the Kurukṣetra and retaining the authority of the Ṛgveda (Cohen 2008).

Despite drawing on the Ṛgveda, the Atharvaveda represents a different tradition, one which would eventually have an influence on the lifting of mantra out of the sacrificial ritual context so that they could be applied in the mundane, day to day context. The Gṛhya Sūtras, which came much later, are concerned with precisely this application of mantras to the household life, and also made them accessible, in theory at least, to all strata of society, even the śudras, lowest rank of the four classes or varṇa. Lipner refers to the Atharvaveda as :
“Earthy verse-spells for the protection against life’s problems (fevers and sicknesses, enemies, sorcery, snake bites, bad dreams, and so on), and for bringing something about (e.g. the good will of others, victory in battle, success in love, healthy cattle, good crops and rain, virility, and power in society); it also contains hymns of homage to gods.” Lipner p.33
“Verse-spells” are mantras of course, used as magical spells, and in the Atharvaveda about one quarter of the verses are taken from the Ṛgveda. Lipner suggests that the spells of the Atharvaveda are popular right up to the present. That the Atharvaveda contains a large number of passages recycled from the Ṛgveda is further puzzling. The Atharvans seem to have been outsiders in the eyes of both śrāmaṇas and brāhamaṇas, though view more favourably by the latter and with access to sacred texts theoretically known only to the latter. 

There are a number of protective verses or paritta in the early Buddhist scriptures, texts which are intended to be chanted to gain protection from malign influences. For example the Karaṇīya Metta Sutta or the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta (See also Piyadassi 1999). There is an apparent similarity of purpose between the Atharvaveda mantras and the paritta texts – especially when they are used as magical protection from harm and misfortune. 

Buddhists and the Atharvaveda

In the Tuvaṭaka Sutta, of the Suttanipatta 927
Āthabbaṇaṃ supinaṃ lakkhaṇaṃ, no vidahe athopi nakkhattaṃ;
Virutañca gabbhakaraṇaṃ, tikicchaṃ māmako na seveyya.
Not practising spells, oneiromancy, or even astrology
One of mine would not divine animal sounds, do fertility magic, or healing.
"One of mine" is a reference to a Buddhist follower. The Pāli word I'm translating as "spells" is āthabbaṇa. The athabba part is the Pāli equivalent of the name of the Sanskrit atharva. With the addition of the -ana suffix (and vṛddhi of the first vowel) we get the derivative āthabbaṇa meaning 'connected with the atharva'. Monier-Williams records atharvaṇa as a name of Śiva, but doesn't provide a context. According to the Paramatthajotikā commentary, from a slightly later period: 
Āthabbaṇanti āthabbaṇikamantappayogaṃ (Pj 2.564) 
Āthabbaṇa here means one who engages (payoga) in the spells (manta) of the Atharvans.
The Mahāniddessa commentary (Nidd I 2.381) expands further on this theme
Āthabbaṇikā āthabbaṇaṃ payojenti, nagare vā ruddhe saṅgāme vā paccupaṭṭhite parasenapaccatthikesu paccāmittesu ītiṃ uppādenti, upaddavaṃ uppādenti, rogaṃ uppādenti, pajjarakaṃ karonti, sūlaṃ karonti, visūcikaṃ karonti, pakkhandikaṃ karonti. 
The Atharvans are those who practice the Atharva; they cause disturbances in towns; they cause calamity amongst hostile armies, opposing armies, and other adversaries; they cause misfortune and disease; they cause illness, pain, cholera (?), and dysentery. 
Now Monier-Williams (sv atharvan) described the Atharvaveda as "consisting chiefly of formulas and spells intended to counteract diseases and calamities." Which is the opposite of the early Buddhist description. So the early texts and the canonical commentaries (which are earlier than Buddhaghosa) have a very dim view of the ArthavansMoriz Winternitz (1927) links the Atharvans with the Aṅgiras, who were also priests in a fire worshipping cult (cf. BU 2.4.10 & 4.5.11 as above). He suggests that the former were interested in healing magic, while the latter were focussed on magic that could harm. The Bṛghus were another group of priests mentioned in the Ṛgveda. We see therefore that there were a variety of Brahmin, or Brahmin related, groups in contact with the early Buddhist milieu.

In this light we might think again of the Kassapa brothers of Gaya (Vin i.23ff; you can read a translation here). They were fire worshippers, but clearly not of the Brahmin variety, because, for example, they have a fire worship house (agyāgāre), where Brahmins did their rituals outside on temporary alters constructed for the purpose. The Kassapas are described as matted-hair ascetics (jaṭila). The Buddha performs a number of miracles and magical feats that convince to them to convert and throw away their fire worshipping paraphernalia. The Buddha then preaches the famous Fire Sermon.

I often wonder how much the survival of texts has influenced our views of the history of this period. Only Buddhist and Brahmin texts survive from the this period in India. Only Brahmin texts from before it. And yet clearly there were other groups around at the time. Other perspectives. It's just that they left no record. It's easy to forget that we only have a very narrow and biased view of these times. Early Buddhists had no commitment to accurately present the historical circumstances or other points of view. They were very often concerned with self-justification.

One of the constant refrains of the Buddha is that the traditional beliefs are not efficacious. In Dhammapada we find the Buddha saying:  
Bahuṃ ve saraṇaṃ yanti, pabbatāni vanāni ca;
Ārāmarukkhacetyāni, manussā bhayatajjitā. | 188 |
Netaṃ kho saraṇaṃ khemaṃ, netaṃ saraṇamuttamaṃ;
Netaṃ saraṇamāgamma, sabbadukkhā pamuccati. | 189 |
People driven by fear seek a great refuge,
A mountain, forest, temple, tree, or shrine.
This is not a safe refuge, not the ultimate refuge
Going to this refuge one is not released from all disappointment
Despite the modern rhetoric of tolerance, Buddhists texts are full of expressive denunciations of what they consider wrong views. At times these polemics cross over into apparent irritation and vexation. The Atharvans were seen in a very negative light.

The Atharvaveda associates misfortunes with the Vedic gods, and protection against misfortune is achieved by appealing to the gods, especially Agni, Varuṇa, and Indra. However it is not entirely clear what the difference is between this and, say, the Āṭānāṭiya Sutta where one is appealing to the power of yakkhas and other daemonic spirits; or, say, the Sambula Jātaka where Sambula is rescued from a malicious yakkha by Indra. Buddhists were not always averse to invoking gods and demons to aid them in difficult times. There is an apparent paradox here: the early Buddhist texts both ridicule the Vedic or autochthonic gods, and also at times call on them for aid. So the antipathy to the Atharvaveda could be part of a struggle going on between traditional beliefs and the new dispensation of the Buddha.

The one thing that Buddhist texts do not do is lump the Atharvans in with Brahmins. At least they don't see the Atharvaveda aligned with the Ṛgveda, the Sāmaveda, and the Yajurveda. Thus there is a real question about the identity of the Atharvans. And at this point that we turn to ancient Iranian literature to see if it sheds any light.

The aθauruuan: Priest and Proselytiser.

As I mentioned in my introduction the Sanskrit word arthavan has a counterpart in Old-Iranian aθauruuan or āθravan.† It is apparent that both Sanskrit and Iranian words continue an Indo-Iranian form *atharuan 'provided with athar' (compare the -van possessive suffix in Sanskrit), however authorities do not agree what athar might be (see Hintze 2009: 179, n.28 for a discussion of this). 
† θ is pronounced like the th in 'theory'. The former spelling is used by Hintze, the latter by Boyce, but they appear to be discussing the same phenomenon.
Although the priest is often connected with fire worship Boyce argues that "The evidence points rather to fire having acquired such importance later, in India through the part played by fire (agni-) in the cult, in Iran through Zoroaster’s reform." By "later" she means ca. 4th century BC. It seems that the aθauruuan were the missionary wing of Zoroastrianism:
"The oldest attestation of the word āθravan is in the Yasna Haptaŋhāiti, where the worshippers honor “the return of the priests who go afar (to those who) seek righteousness in other lands,” that is, it seems to āθravans acting as Zoroastrian missionaries (Y. 42.6)." (Boyce)
According to the Avestan text, Hērbedestān, there was a tradition of each (extended) family allowing (or perhaps requiring) one person to leave home for "priestly service" (Hintze 2015: 38,  2009: 172). Both males and female could undertake this duty. They would study and then preach what we now call Zoroastrianism, the Mazdayasnian religion, and perform the rituals of the religion. Hērbedestān says that they ought to be able to return home three times per year, and not more that three nights of travelling (2009: 176). Zoroaster (i.e. Zaraθuštra) is described as the first priest (paoiryāi aθaurune), the first warrior and the first herdsman. That Zoroastrianism was an evangelical religion is suggested by references to spreading to other countries:
"From here then / the good, Mazdā-Worshipping religion / will spread over all seven regions." (Hintze 2009: 177)
"We worship the return of the priests / who will have gone far away to the truth-seekers of the countries." (Hintze 2009: 178)
So the aθauruuan was a missionary, though the Hērbedestān appears to be ambivalent about how far they might have spread Zoroastrianism: far, but not too far. Hintze interprets these passages as suggesting that the selected aθauruuans would travel to a community and convert it. Then that community would in turn contribute missionaries to spread Zoroastrianism in a domino effect (2015: 38). As Boyce observes "In due course, by their endeavors, Zoroastrianism, first established in eastern Iran, reached western Iran also, to be adopted there by the hereditary priests of the Medes and the Persians, known to the Greco-Roman world as the “magi.”"


From this information we do not have enough information to form a definite conclusion, but if we assume that the name Atharvan was relatively stable then we may conjecture a relationship between the Iranian aθauruuan and the Indian Atharvan. Most likely the word is used in its general sense of 'priest' and we know little about the function of such priests in India. 

There is a slight possibility that the missionary activity of the aθauruuan took them across the Hindukush and into India. We do know that the Achaemanid Persian Empire had political influence in the Indus Valley. We know that cultural contacts with Iran were significant. For example, writing was introduced into India from Iran (in the form of the Aramaic script that Persian Administrators adopted after they conquered that part of the Middle-East). The Sanskrit words for writing and book, lipi and pustaka, are loan words from Old-Iranian. And so on. 

The main problem of course is that the Sanskrit Atharvans are not Zoroastrians or anything like it. They are magicians who use spells to protect or harm. So perhaps the simplest answer is that there is no relationship except that an old-Indo-Iranian label for a priest was recycled. Against this is the fact that on the Indian side of the border, the name of a group of priests seems to be more than a general label and to refer to a distinct cultural group: the Atharvans, the Aṅgirasas, the Bṛgus, all seem to have coherent groups which at the time probably meant being kin based. In this they contrasted with the sāmaṇas who had begun to form groups based on loyalty to a religious teacher.

In my work on the Iranian origins of the Śākyas (Attwood 2012) one of the stand out features was that though they has originated form Iran and had perhaps been Zoroastrian, by the time they settle on the Himalayan foothills on the margins of the Kingdom of Kosala, the Śākyas seem to have adopted an Indian language and forgotten most of their history. Only a few glimpse of Iran are possible. Indeed the few facts presented are probably not decisive enough to convince most people, though my sense is that taken together they are difficult to explain any other way. So if the Śākyas end up in Kosala having become thoroughly Indianised, then perhaps something similar happened to the Atharvans?

The Atharvans have adapted chunks of the Ṛgveda into their religious spiel. There are only two possible explanations for this. They might have come from Vedic speaking Brahmins who memorised the verses and perhaps converted to the religion of the Atharvans. Or the verses in question pre-date either the Ṛgveda or the Atharvaveda and were the common cultural property of Vedic speaking Indians who were divided into distinct groups. We see a similar process at work in the different collections of the Dharmapada for example. Some of the verses of the Dhp are also found in Jain texts and in the Sanskrit Epics. Although exclusivity was a feature of the mature Brahmanical sacrificial religion, it may be that some parts of the Ṛgveda reflect an earlier phase which was less exclusive.

In any case, from the point of view of the early Buddhists, the Atharvans were a distinct group from the Brahmins and seem to have been viewed with fear and loathing. Whereas Brahmins are sometimes mocked, they are also sometimes seen in a very positive light and many of them convert to Buddhism, the few mentions of the Atharvans are all negative. Although the name has an obvious link to Iran, there is not enough evidence to make any stronger link. Still it is an intriguing possibility, and my feeling is that the interactions between Iran, especially the Achaemanid Empire, and Pre-Asoka India have had too little attention to date and will most likely repay careful attention with new discoveries.



Attwood, Jayarava. (2012) Possible Iranian Origins for Sākyas and Aspects of Buddhism. Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies. 3. 
Boyce, M.  (1987) Āθravan. Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, New York, 1996-. Vol. III, Fasc. 1, pp. 16-17.  
Cohen, Signe. (2008) Text and Authority in The Older Upaniṣads. Leiden: Brill.
Hintze, Almut. (2009) Disseminating the Mazdayasnian Religion. An Edition of the Avestan Hērbedestān Chapter 5*. Exegisti monumenta. Festschrift in Honour of Nicholas Sims-Williams. Edited by Werner Sundermann, Almut Hintze and François de BloisHarrassowitz Verlag, 251-278. 
Hintze, Almut. (2015) Zarathustra’s Time and Homeland: Linguistic Perspectives. In: M. Stausberg and Y. Vevaina (eds.), The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism. With the assistance of Anna Tessmann. Oxford: OUP, 31–38. 
Jayatilleke, K. N.  1963. Early Buddhist Theory of Knowledge. George Allen and Unwin.  
Lipner, J. (1994) Hindus: their religious beliefs and practices. London : Routledge.
Piyadassi. (1975) The Book of Protection: Paritta. Buddhist Publication Society. Online: Access to Insight (1999)
Winternitz, Moriz (1927) A History of Indian Literature, Vol. 1. Motilal Banarsidass, 1996  

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

06 January 2012

The Son of the Śākyas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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