Janavasabha Sutta (DN 18)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Monday, Feb. 16, 2015.

The Buddha is staying at the Brick House in Nadika, where he also stayed in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. You will recall that the Buddha foretold the rebirths of many people in that community. This sutta elaborates that story, as the previous sutta elaborated Ananda’s objection to the Buddha dying near Kusinara. As Walshe points out in a footnote, the Magadhans were not mentioned initially. Ananda points this out as a defect, since many Maghadans were Buddhist, including King Bimbisara, recently killed by his son, Ajatasattu, as I have mentioned in a previous talk. Ananda also notes that the Buddha became enlightened in Magadha, at Bodh Gaya. The ability to discern the karmic fate of individuals is the ninth power of a Buddha, called the Divine Eye.

After completing his alms round, perhaps late in the morning or just after noon, the Buddha sits down in meditation in the Brick House and determines to discern the future lot and destiny of the Magadhans as Ananda requested, including King Bimbisara. In the early evening, when the sun is still able to cast a shadow, the Buddha comes out and sits in the shade. Ananda comes to him and notes that his face is “bright and shining,” a characteristic that is associated in other suttas with meditative attainment and death. Here Ananda associates it with the Buddha’s mind being tranquil.

The Buddha tells him that during his meditation he heard the voice of a yaksha, a class of nature spirit that guards natural treasures hidden in the earth and tree roots. There are two kinds of yaksha. This one is a nature fairy, associated with woods and mountains. (A darker version is a kind of ghost that haunts wilderness areas and waylays and devours travellers.) In Buddhist cosmology, they attend Vessavana, the guardian of the northern direction, in the realm of the Four Great Kings, next above our own world.

The yaksha identifies himself as Janavasabha. Afterards, the Buddha asks Ananda if he has heard of him. Although Ananda has not, for some reason the name excites in him both fear and respect. The yaksha appears before the Buddha, in what is termed a “noble vision,” and identifies himself as the dead King Bimbisara. He tells the Buddha that this is his seventh rebirth in the realm of the Four Great Kings, as a king and a messenger of the Guardian of the North. Interestingly, Bimbisara/Janavasabha mentions that he can recall 14 rebirths. Thus, although devas typically recall their past lives, such recall is limited, presumably according to their station in the deva worlds. Human beings only rarely recall their past lives.

Bimbisara/Janavasabha identifies himself to the Buddha as a stream enterer (“winner” in Walshe’s translation), who will achieve nirvana within seven human rebirths, and tells the Buddha that he desires to become a ‘once-returner.’ A once-returner has but one human rebirth remaining before achieving emancipation. The Buddha is astonished by Bimbisara/Janavasabha’s claim: “On what grounds can he know of such an august specific attainment?” Bimbisara/Janavasabha says that it is by the Buddha’s teaching that he knows, referring perhaps to the Mirror of Dharma practice described in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, whereby one knows that one has entered the stream. The stream enterer is identified as being free from all future states of woe and subhuman rebirths by having stricken off the three fetters of belief in a self; belief in rites, rituals, morality, and uncaused salvation; and doubt.

Triple Jewel

Bimbisara proceeds to tell the Buddha the story of an assembly of the devas in the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods on the full moon uposatha of the rainy season (vassa), probably in July, “in earlier times.” Seated in the Sudhamma Hall (“Hall of Good Counsel”), including many other devas and devas of the realm of the Four Great Kings and 2,400 devas who had been Magadhan disciples of the Buddha of that time. The faces of the devas that were disciples of the Buddha were brighter than the others were, causing the Thirty-Three devas to rejoice that the ranks of the devas are increasing while the ranks of the asuras are declining.

The War of the Gods

In order to decode the previous reference to the devas and the asuras, to which this appears to be the first reference in the Digha Nikaya, we must discuss the war between the devas and the asuras.

The realm of the Thirty-Three Gods, the polar centre of the physical universe, used to be inhabited by the antigods (asuras), which now stand midway between the hells and ghosts, but the asuras were expelled in prehistory due to their competitive and desirous nature (this story is also found in the Middle Eastern legends). The chief of this realm is Sakra, a Buddhist variation of Indra, the Hindu chieftain god, who cast the antigods out. Nevertheless, it is considered a beneficent dimension. The inhabitants of this realm are also involved in human affairs. The realm of the Thirty-Three Gods is similar to ‘heaven’ in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, with the realm of the antigods corresponding quite closely with ‘hell.’ Both the Semites and the Aryans believed that gods and other supernatural beings walk among us, usually invisibly, but are capable of assuming a physical presence. This was the basis of the ancient custom of hospitality.

Whereas human beings inhabit four great continents in the one world ocean that surrounds the base of Mount Sumeru, the asuras inhabit the ocean itself immediately around the base. The word ‘a-sura’ was interpreted to mean “non-sura,” i.e., not a sura, a synonym for deva (literally, a “shining being” or energy being of light). Deva can also be translated “celestial dweller” or “star.”

Asura is often translated ‘Titan, demigod, anti-god,’ or ‘demon.’ The asuras are described as addicted to the passions of wrath, pride, envy, insincerity, falseness, boasting, and bellicosity. They are dominated by ego, force, and violence. At least some asuras are actually malevolent. As with all of the six classes of sentient beings, asuras may be reborn as human beings, and human beings may be reborn as asuras. Because humans and asuras occupy essentially the same plane, i.e., the one world ocean surrounding the base of Mount Sumeru, there is considerable friction between them. Asuras enjoy a much more pleasurable life than humans do, but they are plagued by envy for the devas.

Asuras and human beings are alike in that we both have shared a similar fate. Both human beings and the asuras originally occupied a much higher realm in the Buddhist hierarchy. Asuras originally lived in the realm of the Thirty-Three Gods on the peak of Mount Sumeru, but they were cast down to the foot of the mountain due to their drunkenness. Thus the asuras and the devas of the Thirty-Three Gods engage in constant conflict, in which human beings also become embroiled.

Asuras perceive devas in the same way that animals perceive humans. Humans perceive animals consistently, unless they are very small, but devas and asuras only rarely. Asuras are often confused with hell beings.

The asuras were not always regarded as evil beings. In the Rig Veda (1500–1000 BCE), asuras were a type of deva, such as Asura Varuna, the god of the celestial ocean, the underwater world, and law and order, moral and societal affairs, and nature. Asuras (lit. ‘lord’) were originally a term associated with individual devas, not a class of beings in their own right. Asuras become a distinct class of being during the late Vedic period (1000 BCE–500 BCE).

Originally the asuras were the older and stronger siblings of the devas, powerful and beneficent. The later Vedic texts begin to document a conflict between the asuras and the devas, in which the asuras were invariably victorious. According to the Bhagavad Gita, the asuras are described as vicious, proud, arrogant, conceited, angry, harsh, and ignorant. This reflects a growing conflict between the older, dominant cult of asura worship and a newer but rising cult of deva worship.

Originally, the asuras were non-anthropomorphic and formless gods, in contradistinction to the more anthropomorphic devas. The asuras were the guardians of the natural and moral laws of rita, the great principle of cosmic order that regulates and coordinates the operation of the universe, comparable to dharma and karma. The deva worshippers, on the other hand, were concerned with power, might, fear, submission, and the status quo. Interestingly, it was also during the late Vedic period that women were stripped of their traditional rights and privileges and demoted to the status of property, something the Buddha opposed but which was reinstated immediately after his death (parinirvana) about 400 BCE by the arhants of the First Buddhist Council.

The division between the asura and deva worshippers appears to correspond to a social schism that occurred during the late Vedic period and culminated in the samana counterculture of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. This schism was associated with two classes of Vedic deity, the asuras and the devas (a.k.a. suras).

Originally the asuras (lit. “lord”) were a class of superior devas who inhabited the realm of the 33 gods (trayastrimsa) on top of Mount Meru. In Buddhism, the asuras are seen as inferior deities who are never satisfied and who always strive to improve themselves. This is paradoxical, because the Buddha opposed the Brahmanic establishment based on caste, supported by the deva worshippers, as a degenerate remnant of the primordial tradition that the Buddha sought to restore.

This schism reflects a conflict between the adherents of the old gods that continues today. One finds a similar conflict in Egyptian mythology, in which the old gods, like Set, now associated with evil, were originally not regarded as evil at all. This principle of cosmic conflict became entrenched in later religions, such as Zoroastrianism and Christianity, as well. In the Iranian tradition, the asuras, especially Asura (Ahura) Mazda, the personification of Wisdom, retained their privileged status and it was the devas who were demonized and cast down.

The names of many asuras refer to natural abstractions, rather as in Native American spiritualism, Indus Valley civilization, etc. A new cult of deva worship emerged during the late Vedic period that declared the asuras demonic and began to persecute the older group of asura worshippers. The new deva worshippers were authoritarian. They supported the superiority of the Brahmans, the caste system, and they were misogynistic. The conflict between the asura and deva worshippers was mythologized. In the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent the deva worshippers achieved pre-eminence, whereas in the west the asura worshippers maintained their prestige, demonizing the devas in return. The latter became the foundation of Zoroastrianism in Iran, with the supreme god Ahura (Asura) Mazda, the god of Wisdom, at its head.

This period was also a period characterized by a great mythological war between two groups of divinities, the devas (“shining ones”) and the asuras (literally “lords” but interpreted based on an etymology which means “anti-gods”). The asuras seem to be associated with vast cosmic and natural powers older and more powerful than the devas (the explanation for why the devas were able to overcome them and cast them down from the Plane of the 33 Gods is that they were drunk, suggesting a connection between the downfall of the asuras and the forgetting of soma?). The asuras were cast down into the cosmic ocean where, together with the devas, they churn the cosmic ocean for soma.

If we identify the devas of the Thirty-Three Gods with the force of negentropy, the tendency to order, and the realm of the asuras with the force of entropy, the tendency to disorder, we see that the war of the devas and the asuras is a metaphor for the dualistic dynamic of the universe, raging between energy-information-negentropy and matter-ignorance-entropy. The dharma therefore represents the action of the negentropic principle in a universe ruled by entropy. R. Buckminster Fuller was perhaps the first modern to recognize that humans fulfill a natural negentropic function within the universe.

The Assembly of the 33 Devas

In the course of their deliberations, a light appears in the north. Sakka declares, “when such signs are seen, such light is seen and such radiance shines forth, Brahma will appear.” We have encountered this association of the imminent appearance of the chief of the Brahma worlds with unpredictable luminous phenomena before. Reminiscent of the near-death phenomenon (NDE), all the devas declare, “Let us find out what comes of this radiance, and having found the truth of it, we will go towards it” (italics added). Kumara also means “gold,” and the sutta says that he outshone the devas like a gold statue outshines the human figure.

The Brahma Sanankumara appears before the Assembly of the 33 Gods.  Sanankumara has come up in previous talks, but I think this is his first appearance in the Digha Nikaya. Sanatkumara in Sanskrit, his name means “Eternal Child.” In himself, Sanatkumara was imperceptible, but by assuming a coarse form he was able to make himself perceptible to the Assembly. Brilliant to behold, he outshone all the other devas and encouraged them to follow the Buddhist dharma.

Sanatkumara is one of the Four Kumaras, four sages or rishis who wander the universe together as divine children. They are the first mind-born creations and sons of Brahma. Contrary to Brahma’s wishes, they are celibate (brahmacharya) teachers. They are also listed among 12 great devotees (mahajanas) of bhakti, and are associated with Krishna and sometimes with Shiva. Sanatkumara, along with his three brothers, named Sanaka, Sanatana, and Sanandana, is mentioned in the Mahabharata as one of the seven sages (rishis), the transmitters of the Veda. The Sanatkumara Samhita is attributed to him. He is also a yoga preceptor and an advocate of the religion of inward contemplation (nivritti), referred to in the Bhagavadgita. In addition to advocating Buddhism, he is associated with Sankhya philosophy.

The form that Sanatkumara assumes is that of Pancasikha, a male youth beloved of the gods, floating cross-legged in the air, who praises the Buddha and the dharma. Since no one offers him a seat, he multiplies himself into 33 duplicates of his physical form, each of which sits down on the seat of each of the 33 gods. Therefore, each god-form assumes the god-form of Sanatkumara/Pancasikha. He declares that those who take refuge in the Triple Jewel and follow the precepts will be reborn in one of the realms of the World of Sense Desires but no lower than the Four Great Kings. This is unusual in that other suttas declare that human rebirth is the best for as aspirant, but perhaps that this is included is implicit in the fact that he is a stream enterer. The voice of Brahma is described as distinct, intelligible, pleasant, attractive, compact, concise, deep, and resonant. Each of the Thirty-Three devas, on whose seats Sanakumara was sitting, feels that he speaks to them alone.

The Four Roads to Power

Sanakumara reunifies his form and sits on the seat of Sakka. He declares that the Buddha has discovered the four Roads to Power. These consist of four practices:

  1. Concentration of Intention;
  2. Concentration of Energy;
  3. Concentration of Consciousness;
  4. Concentration of Investigation.

Each of these practices is accompanied by an effort of will.

Sanakumara presents this practice as the universal key to realization practised by all ascetics and Brahmans of the past, present, and future. Thus, here we have in this sutta a declaration of the essential key of dharma practice. Moreover, these practices are all directed towards the development of psychic powers (iddhis) in addition to realization. Here we see another sign of a proto-Tantric element in the Pali Canon.

The Three Gateways to Bliss

He declares the three gateways to the bliss of a Buddha, viz.,

  • disassociation from sense desires and unwholesome conditions;
  • allaying the gross tendencies of body, speech, and mind;
  • knowing what is right and wrong, based on the law of karma.

The three gateways to bliss develop gladness and knowledge.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness

He declares the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, in which one contemplates:

  • Body as body;
  • Feelings as feelings;
  • Mind as mind;
  • Mind-objects as mind-objects.

The Four Foundations of Mindfulness develop concentration, calm, serenity, knowledge, and vision.

The Seven Requisites of Concentration

He declares the Seven Requisites of Concentration, viz.,

  1. Right View;
  2. Right Thought;
  3. Right Speech;
  4. Right Action;
  5. Right Livelihood;
  6. Right Effort;
  7. Right Mindfulness.

The similarity to the Noble Eightfold Path is obvious.  A question that has arisen in past talks with respect to the Noble Eightfold Path is the significance of the numbered sequence as a sequence, i.e., do the tasks corresponding to the “limbs” of the Noble Eightfold Path represent a graduated path?  This has been contrasted with the Threefold Classification, attributed to the nun Dhammadinna, which appears to imply a different order from the Noble Eightfold Path. I’m not going to discuss this again here, but I would note the strong emphasis on the sequence of the Seven Requisites for Concentration, which clearly correspond to the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path.  Each requisite establishes the necessary basis for the next, so the requisites clearly must be attained in order, confirming Peter Masefield’s and my hypothesis that the proper sequence of the Threefold Classification is Wisdom, Morality, and Meditation, culminating in the higher concentration, knowledge, and liberation. From right mindfulness arise right concentration, right knowledge, and right liberation, corresponding to the eighth limb of the Noble Eightfold Path, right concentration. The Seven Requisites of Concentration give us greater insight into the construction of the Noble Eightfold Path.

He declares that the dharma is timeless, capable of rational apprehension and analysis by each individual for himself, and progressive. He reiterates a continuous refrain of the Pali Canon, “Open are the doors of the Deathless!”, which decisively negates any notion that the Buddha taught anything less than personal immortality: “For indeed, my Lords, the Dhamma is well-proclaimed by the Lord, visible here and now, timeless, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be comprehended by the wise, each one for him or herself, and, too, the doors to the Deathless are open!”

Interestingly, access to the doors to the Deathless appears to be non-gender-specific, assuming that Walshe’s translation is faithful to the Pali. I plan to look more closely at this, as well as the Pali underlying he intriguing phrase, “leading onward.” In what sense does dharma “lead onward”? Is dharma attractive? Does it induce an evolutionary tendency or direction? Is it educational or therapeutic? Is it ontological?

Finally, Sanakumara affirms the doctrine of the Buddha lineage, viz., that Buddhas have arisen in the past, and will arise again in the future.


Unlike most other suttas in the Pali Canon, this sutta is an explicit spirit teaching, like similar productions in Tibetan Buddhist and Taoist traditions especially. The teaching of Sanakumara is transmitted to the 33 devas, who transmit it to Vessavana, who relates it to his followers, including Janavasabha. Janavasabha is King Bimbisara of Magadha, reborn as a king in the realm of the Four Great Kings. Janavasabhva, noticing (to a spiritual being, the minds of human being are open books) what the Buddha is thinking about (i.e., the future rebirths of the Magadhans, including King Bimbisara), he transmits it to the Buddha, who confirms its coherence with his own realization (note!) and transmits it to Ananda. Ananda transmits it to male and female monastics and lay followers or householders, emphasizing (we see) the inclusion of both genders. Clearly, the concept of initiatory transmission is implied, which we also find in later traditions of the Tantric type especially.

The end of the sutta is also unique. Most suttas end with the phrase “Thus the Lord spoke” or an utterance or an incident, often a conversion, an awakening, or a summary verse. The Janavasabha Sutta ends with the words, “And so the holy life waxed mighty and prospered and spread widely as it was proclaimed among mankind.” One expects this sort of revelatory ending from a communication of this type.

I consider this sutta further confirmation of my thesis that there is a proto-Tantric element in the Pali Canon.


Audiopedia (accessed 2014, Nov. 29). Magadha. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaLS5JwIaE0&list=PLIlnX5XqpaLTTYyIK7NDQ4RWDcHaeZ-QZ&index=2