Aganna Sutta (DN 27)

Discourse on Origins

Digha Nikaya 27

Country: Kosala

Locale: mansion of Migara’s mother in the East Park, Savatthi (Shravasti)

Speaker: Vasettha, Bharadvaja, the Buddha

Savatthi, a.k.a. Shravasti, a prosperous trading centre located on the bank of the Aciravati (now West Rapti) river, and the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kosala, was one of the six largest cites in India at the time of the Buddha, with a population of 57,000 households. The Buddha spent twenty-four rainy seasons in Savatthi during his lifetime.

Vasettha and Bharadvaja are the two young Brahmans in sutta 13, where they were arguing about right and wrong paths. In this sutta, they are living amongst the monastics, hoping to become monastics themselves. In the evening, the Buddha comes out of “Migara’s mansion,” a sort of pleasance, having spent the day there in “secluded meditation,” and begins walking up and down in the shade. Vasettha, noticing this, suggests to Bharadvaja that they follow the Buddha in the hope of hearing a dharma talk from him, and they fall into step with him as he walks up and down.

The Buddha asks Vasettha and Bharadvaja if they get any grief from the other Brahmans for hanging out with the Buddha’s monastics. They affirm that they do receive grief from the Brahmans, who accuse them of abandoning the highest, fairest, purest Brahman caste who consist of the children of God (Brahma). Instead, they have gone over to the base caste of the Buddha’s disciples, described as “shaveling petty ascetics,” servants, and dark fellows born of Brahma’s foot. The Buddhist sangha of course made no distinction between the castes, so to the Brahmans the sangha was a mixed-race rabble with whom one should not associate. This makes the sangha the ultimately democratic organization.

There are several colour references in this sutta, associating the Brahmans with a fairer and therefore better caste of people. This Indian view of race is consistent with the Aryan migration theory, in which fairer Indo-European migrants came down from the north-west and assimilated into a local, darker, aboriginal people, who were looked down upon. There is no suggestion in the Pali Canon, however, that the Buddha shared this racial prejudice.

The Buddha replies that such an attitude shows that the Brahmans have forgotten their ancient tradition, an oft-repeated assertion of the Buddha. You will recall from other talks that the Buddha has identified himself as restoring the primordial Brahmanic tradition to its original purity and perfection, identified with the ancient Vedic rishis as well as a prehistoric lineage of perfected Buddhas. The Buddha points out that Brahman women menstruate, become pregnant, give birth, and suckle their young, just like the women of other castes. Therefore, the statement that Brahmans are “born from the mouth of Brahma” is a myth. As a lie, such an assertion earns much demerit (the Buddha says). Here the Buddha reveals his rationalistic side that was criticized by the Vedic traditionalists.

The Buddha gives an account of the castes, which he lists off as warriors (khattiyas), priests (brahmans), traders (vessas), and workers (suddas) The noble or warrior caste is placed above the Brahmans. This was their original and proper place in northeast India at that time, which the Buddha very likely identifies with the ancient tradition aforementioned, whereas the Brahmans had usurped the place of the khattiya caste in the west and there were the dominant group. In the Pali Canon, the Brahmans are generally portrayed as subject to the military rulers, although clearly favoured, as they often fulfilled such roles as governors of towns, which they practically owned.

The Buddha points out, however, that all of the castes are equally subject to karma, both negative and positive. Once again, alcohol is not mentioned in the list of what we otherwise recognize as pansil – the five precepts including not killing, not stealing, etc. We’ve talked about this before so I won’t go into it again here. Both bright and dark qualities – good and bad karma – are scattered indiscriminately among the four castes. Therefore, the claim of the Brahmans to supremacy is disproved by the fact that any one of any caste who destroys the corruptions that bind one to rebirth may be become emancipated through superknowledge and thus become an arhant, who is above all the castes. In the same way as the Shakyans submit to Pasenadi, the king of Kosala, so too does the king submit to the Tathagata.

The Buddha points out that all of the members of the sangha, although they all come from different births, names, clans, and families, are all ascetics, followers of the Sakyan. This is also how they should refer to themselves if asked (he says). The Pali word is Sakyaputta, lit. ‘sons of the Shakyan clan.’ It could also mean ‘children of the Shakyans’ or even ‘children of those who are able,’ the literal meaning of Shakya. The Buddha thus elaborates this statement: “I am a true son of Blessed Lord, born of his mouth, born of Dhamma, created by Dhamma, an heir of Dhamma,” thus appropriating to himself and the Dharma the role of Brahma. One often reads in the literature that the English term “Buddhist” does not correspond to a word that the Buddha used, but Buddhist, lit. “one concerned with the Buddha,” is not that far different from Sakyaputta (‘son of the Shakyan’), so we may say that Buddhists are “Shakyaputtans.”

The Buddha says that they may refer to themselves this way because the Body of Dhamma (dhammakaya) “designates” the Tathagata. This is a rare explanation in the Pali Canon of the meaning of Tathagata, the mysterious epithet of the Buddha that means something like ‘he who travelled the path,’ which we have discussed in previous talks. This term, also translated ‘truth body’ or ‘reality body,’ is one of the three bodies of the Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism, representing the highest, unmanifested, inconceivable aspect of a Buddha – yet another example of the Pali origin of a Mahayana doctrine. The Buddha glosses this phrase as “the Body of Brahma,’ “Become Dhamma,” or “Become Brahma,” meaning that the Buddha, as the Tathagata, has realized the highest truth. The other two aspects are the ecstatic body (sambhogakaya) and the created body (nirmanakaya).  The dharmakaya is the most inscrutable, immortal, and timeless essence of a Tathagata.

We have discussed Buddhist cosmology in previous talks, including in connection with sutta 1. Here the Buddha describes the contraction of the universe, when most beings are reborn in the Abhassara Brahma world, corresponding to the second jhana. The Abhassara realm refers to the ‘radiant’ devas, who are our own origin as human beings prior to being degraded to the level of rebirth on the earth plane.  This is the realm next above the Brahma world. The Buddha describes the residents of this world as “mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious,” and long-lived. After a very long time the universe begins to expand again, much as described by the so-called “big bang” theory of modern physics.  During the period of this expansion, most of the beings from the Abhassara realm are reborn in this world. Here they abide in the same fashion, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious.  This description is reminiscent of Plato’s bisexual luminous spheres that, he says, are the original nature of human beings, and implies a primordial, pre-hominid occupation of the earth by these luminous aerial beings. I have had occasion to refer to these phenomena in the Pali Canon before.

The Buddha proceeds to tell Vasettha a cosmogony, a myth about the origin of the world and life. The earth was originally entirely covered by water, and everything was blinding darkness. There were no sun, moon, stars, night, day, months, fortnights, years, seasons, or gender. Interestingly, scientists believe that the earth was originally a “waterworld,” almost entirely covered by water, about 2.5 billion years ago. The only life on earth at that time was sexless algae and bacteria. After a very long period, a skin formed on the surface of the water like the skin that forms over hot milk as it cools. In this passage, the Buddha demonstrates that he understands that the cause of the one world ocean at that time was the deep mantle of the earth, which was 200 degrees hotter than it is now, and also that it was cooling. As the deep mantle cooled, the continental crust formed must have been as described in the sutta.

During the waterworld era, any oxygen produced by photosynthesising bacteria would have been quickly used up through reactions with decaying organic matter in the oceans.

When the newly emerged land eroded, it produced sediment that washed into the oceans and buried the organic matter, preventing further reactions with oxygen, the scientists believe. As a result, oxygen was allowed to build up in the atmosphere and enable oxygen-breathing life to evolve and flourish.

The eroded sediment would also have fertilised the oceans with phosphorous, an important nutrient for living things.[1]

The Pali Canon calls this phosphorus “skin” rasa-pathavi (lit. ‘earth-sap’). Interestingly in view of the subsequent reference to luminance, phosphorus emits a faint glow when exposed to oxygen. It is also an essential element of the human genetic material, DNA and RNA.

Up until this time human beings were still like devas, even though they inhabited our universe. One of these devas tasted the “earth-sap,” and discovered that it was sweet like pure wild honey. This was the origin of craving. As a result, their self-luminance disappeared. As it did so, the sun and the moon revealed themselves, and night, day, months, fortnights, year, and seasons all appeared, restarting the evolution of the universe.

Over a very long period, the devas continue to feast on the earth-sap and as they do so their bodies become coarser and more material, and their appearance begins to acquire individual differences. Beauty and ugliness arise, leading to pride, which in turn leads to the disappearance of the earth-sap (the connection is lost on me, however – perhaps as the beings become more material the more refined earth-sap becomes intangible to them?). In place of the earth-sap, a mushroom-like fungus appears (one is tempted to suggest that this might be a psychedelic, but the text says nothing to substantiate such an association other than that it is a food). So the devas start to feast on the fungus instead of the earth-sap, and their bodies continue to coarsen. This process of degeneration continues over eons. Each time the existing food disappears, and a new one appears. Thus, creepers, bamboo, and rice come after the fungus.

When rice becomes the predominant food, female and male sex organs appear and men and women begin to copulate. This is really the point at which human beings as we know them appear. People build houses in order to create the privacy needed to have sexual relations. Thus, the concepts of property and territoriality arise. Next people begin to exploit the wild rice and damage the environment. Sounds familiar, eh? As a result, the rice fields are divided up into fields with boundaries. Because of dividing the rice fields up into plots, people begin to steal each other’s property, and all kinds of civil strife appear, which in turn require repressive measures to suppress it. Because of this civil strife, the people appoint someone to keep order in exchange for a share of the rice.  This person was called the Mahasammata – lit. ‘great appointee,’ and was the precursor of the khattiya caste. Note that the premise here, then, is that the primordial state of humanity postulated by the Buddha is the direct democracy of the people – the original non-self-contradictory state. The khattiya caste and the title of raja (king) also appear, which together constitute the khattiya, the “first” or original caste.  

This protohistorical, step-by-step causal account of the progressive devolution of beings resulting in the appearance of property, territoriality, government, civil order and disorder, etc. is very similar to a specialized application of the paticcasamuppada, the doctrine usually translated as ‘dependent origination,’ which we have discussed in a previous talk.

The Buddha identifies the origin of each of the castes as a process of continuous degeneration: the Brahmans in ethical judgment, meditation, and scholarship; the merchant or trader class in sexuality and the settled householder life; and the artisans or workers in hunting and gathering. Finally, the ascetics appear out of all of the castes in response to fundamental ontological dissatisfaction. This is presented as a kind of historical development. All of the castes reap the consequences of negative and positive karma alike, and all can attain emancipation alike. Therefore, the ascetics are above all of the castes.

The Buddhist view of the tendency to degeneration is in striking contrast to the Western evolutionary bias, which tends to see the arrow of time progressing toward ever more positive and successful states. The Buddhist view is more akin to the scientific perspective that time is essentially entropic, but with negentropic modes or phases. However, properly speaking, Buddhism sees time as cyclical, alternating between periods of devolution and periods of evolution, on both human and cosmological scales.

Finally, the Buddha quotes the Brahma Sanankumara (Skt. Sanat Kumara). We’ve heard about Sanankumara before. He is one of the four mind-born sons of Brahma. “The Khattiya’s best among those who value clan, / He with knowledge and conduct is best of gods and men.” The Buddha affirms that the sangha stands in relation to the spiritual life as the khattiyas stand in relation to society. It is clear, however, that the Buddha himself is not one of those who value clan, so he is not actually affirming the supremacy of any caste.

 Note

1. “Early Earth ‘Was Covered in Water,” Dec. 31, 2008, Metro News, http://metro.co.uk/2008/12/31/early-earth-was-covered-in-water-274995.

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