This post is in response to James’ question about the notorious 32 Marks of a Great Man, especially as found in Digha Nikaya 30 Lakkhana Sutta. (James’ post referred to DN32, this is a mistake, also found in Wikipedia; I’ve corrected it there.)
D30 is clearly a late sutta. The verses prove this – they are in late metres, and the commentary says they were composed by Ananda – and even the prose sections have no Agama cognates.
The concept of the 32 marks, however, is widely found in the Suttas, although D30 is the only place that links the marks to specific kammas.
There is plenty of incidental detail in the Suttas and Vinaya that show that the Buddha was normal in appearance, so any freakish or supernatural interpretation of the marks must be wrong. Leaving a few of the bizarre elements aside, most of the marks are straightforward signs of physical beauty: black hair, white teeth, gold skin, and the like.
The Suttas themselves attribute the marks to ancient Brahmanical texts, although strangely enough they are not found in any extant Brahmanical works.
There is some suggestion that they may be Babylonian in origin: one of the early texts that features them (Parayanavagga) speaks of a Brahman called ‘Bavari’, which is just the Pali spelling of ‘Babylonian’; marks and omens of all kinds are rampant in Babylon and related cultures. In addition, the 32 marks are closely connected with the idea that the Buddha is a ‘Great man’, who has to choose between spiritual and royal dominion. This choice is first expressed in the myth of Gilgamesh, thousands of years before the Buddha, the most famous myth throughout the Babylonian region.
It is quite normal to have a child inspected for various auspicious marks, and so on, and so there is little reason to doubt that this happened to Siddhattha. It is also normal, indeed, essential, for the hero to fulfill ancient prophecies. While we can’t say what marks the Buddha actually had, we can be sure that if he did not fulfill an ancient prophecy, one would have been invented for him.
Myth evolves from facts plus imagination. When the baby Siddhattha was born, he would have been inspected, and since he was in fact healthy and physically excellent, he would have been pronounced as such by the soothsayers. It’s possible that other ‘auspicious’ events coincided with the birth – favorable stars or the like. As the child grew into a world-renowned spiritual teacher, the tales would have grown and been retold. They would have been shaped by, and in turn shaped, the prevailing mythos. The originally human details acquired a halo, polished and embellished by countless storytellers. When they have been sufficiently removed from their historical basis, they come to serve a universal, spiritual purpose – an expression of faith and awe; and in addition they can be leveraged for doctrinal purposes, as in D30.
What moderns fail to understand about myth – and I have spoken of this in Sects & Sectarianism – is that in the ancient world myth was widely accepted as an expression of universal truth. We are empiricists, at least in theory – we start with data and infer conclusions. But mythic truth tells of things that always have been and always will be. It is not subject to mundane inconveniences like facts. The mythos tells us that great spiritual beings have special physical signs that are an external manifestation of their inner perfection. Therefore, the Buddha must have had such marks. The only question would be the manner in which the marks were expressed, which would reflect the philosophy of those telling the story; hence the marks are interpreted as cosmic, not literal, in the Mahayana texts.
The compilers of the Buddhist texts sometimes invented passages to conform with prevailing patterns. We know this; there are explicit instructions in two Vinayas that the monks should do this, together with details as to how it should be done. So when we see a clearly mythic notion like the 32 marks, which contradicts the known facts that the Buddha had a normal physique, then we know it is an invention, whose basis is to be explained by the needs, wishes, and motivations of the redactors.
This does not mean that the marks should be dismissed: on the contrary it means that we have an invaluable method of understanding earlier generations of Buddhists, and how their beliefs influenced the form in which the Dhamma has been passed down to us. If we don’t understand those people, how can we hope to understand the texts that they formed as a vessel for the teaching of the Buddha?
We might scoff at the irrationality of the texts, but consider this: all ancient religious texts contain some material that we consider irrational. They survived against all odds, while countless other texts perished, because there was something in them that motivated people to devote incredible energy and dedication to their preservation. Would a purely rational, empirical Buddhism have survived? We have no examples to show that this is possible.
By all means, question the mythos: the insistence that myth is history is the seed of all fundamentalisms. But don’t throw them out: learn to understand myth as myth, and whole new vistas of meaning will open before you.
100 thoughts on “On the 32 marks”
Doh! I’ve been called out on my Wikipedia referencing.As an educator myself, how embarrassing.
In all seriousness, thank you for the well thought out post Bhante. You are one of the brightest lights in the modern Sangha. Keep up the good work.
Ahh, Wikipedia. But the point is, now it’s right.
You might remember a post a few weeks ago on a talk by Peter Vardy. He made a joke about Wikipedia, to an audience of teachers; a predictable target; but he still quoted it.
In the break I browsed the ‘official’ Cambridge (i think) textbook on display at the conference, and thought I’d look up my topic for the day, Buddhist sexual ethics, to see what it said on the matter. I only had time to skim the few paragraphs that it had on Buddhist sexual ethics. Even in such a small sample, the book presented at least one glaring problem. It mentioned that Buddhist sexual ethics do not prohibit non-adulterous sex outside marriage; and went on to opine that this was probably because the age of marriage in ancient India was so young.
Of all the specious arguments! There is no evidence whatsover to show that the average age of marriage in 500BCE India was any younger than anywhere else; and anyway, this is not going to prevent opportunities for pre-marital sex. All the descriptions of the precept against adultery show that the basic problem is the betrayal of trust, and so pre-marital sex is simply not against the precept – which, of course, is not to say that it is encouraged, merely that it is not prohibited.
Anyway, this is the level of reliability I found in an ‘authorized’ textbook – Wikipedia isn’t looking so bad after all….
Excellent post bhante.
Buddha images were obviously Apollo statues that the Bactrian Greeks simply converted into “The Buddha” when they converted. Its interesting because it seems as if most of the 32 marks are simply describing a statue.
This I’m not so sure about. I think the 32 marks as they appear in texts pre-date any extant statues; in addition, the evidence as I understand it is that the Greco-style images of Gandhara and the ‘Indic’ style images of Mathura appear more or less simultaneously. It is, of course, common for details of myths to be deduced from iconography, as well as vice versa; but I have not seen decisive evidence that this is the case for the 32 marks.
“We might scoff at the irrationality of the texts, but consider this: all ancient religious texts contain some material that we consider irrational. They survived against all odds, while countless other texts perished, because there was something in them that motivated people to devote incredible energy and dedication to their preservation. Would a purely rational, empirical Buddhism have survived? We have no examples to show that this is possible.
By all means, question the mythos: the insistence that myth is history is the seed of all fundamentalisms. But don’t throw them out: learn to understand myth as myth, and whole new vistas of meaning will open before you.”
If the 32 marks were a harmless myth, or better yet a myth that had positive values to impart I could agree with this, but with the mark of “blue eyes” and “light golden skin” it really cant be interpreted as anything else but racist.
The logic is pretty clear, good kamma = blue eyes light skin, therefore dark eyes, dark skin must equal….. its a bad myth any way you look at it. Peace,
To be quite honest, I had never thought of the 32 marks in connection with racism. The physical ideals they represent, perhaps, points to a northern rather than tropical origin, although such details can be easily enough changed as the myth is transmitted.
Elsewhere the Suttas clearly make the point that external features do not represent someone’s spiritual attainment, although there is definitely an ambiguity there. Perhaps this is a field that would repay more detailed study. I do agree with you, it is hard to find any sort of meaningful ethical value in the 32 marks teaching.
is there an English translation of the places in the vinaya where it gives the instructions for fabricating stories?
There’s two passages, from the Mahasanghika and mulasarvastivada vinayas. They’re translated and discussed by Schopen, I can hunt down the details if you like.
Dear Bhante Sutajo,
Is it possible to see the exact quote from the the Pali canon itself rather than the Mahasanghika etc..?
it doesn’t matter what ethnicity the 32 marks refer to, so long as a any ethnicity is referred to it implies that every other ethnicity is inferior.
As I mentioned in a post several months back about kamma, some of the implications of kamma in the suttas really trouble me. it seems like a form of spiritual eugenics.
That is so interesting. Do you think that this use of the notion of kamma changes if one adds the notion of Anatta to the picture? What do you think?
Hee, hee. There is at least one narrative (Commentarial, perhaps?) which attributes Ven Mahamoggallana’s dark tan to his most recent sojourn in hell, for all his naughty deeds as a Mara in a past life. Not quite racist, but speciest perhaps?
As for the Buddha’s blue eyes, I don’t know if the redactors of that time had yet encountered any Nordic examples. Maybe they were thinking of sapphires, instead of race?
And do you regard the stories of previous Buddhas and Buddhas to come as myth?
Since a myth is “a sacred narrative regarding a god, a hero, the origin of the world or of a people” then these are obviously myths.
Which doesn’t necessarily prove – empirically and without doubt 😉 – that they are false 😉
The notion of myth, aside from its uses in popular culture, has nothing to do with ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’, it has to do with the meaning and function that a story has for a people.
Is that what you meant by “But don’t throw them out: learn to understand myth as myth, and whole new vistas of meaning will open before you.” ?
I wasn’t sure what you meant by that when i read it.
Now I’m wondering…do you mean that we can have access into different ways of viewing and perceiving the world because we might get ‘inside the heads’ (so to speak) of those who authored these myths?
Bhante, would you mind very much sharing something that was new and meaningful to you that you learned from exploring myth?
Oh, dear, that’s a hard one. There’s too much, i wouldn’t know where to start. One of the things about stories is that they have an effect in the telling, even though often the ‘message’ may be very simple, and sound trite when all on its own.
But here goes one example. Myths are always taken as being a ‘moral’ guideline. Yet all true heroes will do something normally considered highly immoral in order to achieve their quest. For Siddhattha, this was when he abandoned his family. The point of these junctures is to cause a moral crisis: to show that conventional morality is not the highest value the we can aspire to. Such moral crisis always precede a shift in the level of the story, as our hero’s quest takes on a deeper existential significance. This is not just a storytelling device, it is a demonstration of the limits of conventional morality. It is quite possible to live a ‘good’ life, to do all the right things and never harm anyone; but at the same time, to never question, to never understand who you are and why you do these things. For a life to be truly profound, not just conventionally ‘good’, there comes a point when conventions must be broken.
Thanks Bhante. I suppose it’s not just in the telling, but in the hearing; since we bring so much of our history and being into how we hear and listen. I appreciate the answer.
Are you saying you (and we should) regard the concept of Buddhas’ Ancient Path, the rediscovery of the Dhamma by successive Buddhas, the notions of rebirth, beginningless samsara, the “political incorrectness” of kamma (as Lars seems to be saying), and such as myths?
I don’t think anyone is able to prove the things you mentioned as a myth yet. But when discussing there will always be people who claim so and otherwise. This is predictable. But either way it doesn’t matter how tall or short the Buddha is, what really matter is how we practice.
I found this comment by Bhante S most interesting:
“The notion of myth, aside from its uses in popular culture, has nothing to do with ‘truth’ or ‘falsity’, it has to do with the meaning and function that a story has for a people.”
To me that sounds like, just cos it’s labelled a myth, doesn’t mean it’s not true. I think we popularly think the word ‘myth’ equals the word ‘untrue’. Could be wrong, but it seems Bhante doesn’t do this.
I view that as Ajahn Sujato’s personal view or interpretation of the word.
@Visakha: These are doctrines, not myths. As such, they can be either true or false. A myth, considered as a myth, cannot be true or false, these are the wrong kinds of categories to bring to it. Myths can be considered as ‘meaningful’, ‘inspiring’, and so on, but as soon as we ask of truth, we are in the realm of history, not myth.
And i don’t think Lars was saying that the doctrine of kamma is not politically correct. I think he was pointing out that it is problematic to link kamma with the possession of certain racial characteristics such as skin color. In the same way it is problematic to say that one becomes a woman because of bad kamma, it is also problematic to say that you become black because of bad kamma. I think this is a serious issue, and as always, when considering such things one must first of all ask, what do the texts say, and how likely is it that such a doctrine can be traced directly to the Buddha?
Bhante, would the myth aspect be that these doctrines were taught by such and such a teacher at such and such a place? Are the doctrines not part of the myth or do you see two parralel buddhism are doctrianal version and a version that resonates through myth?
I also think that it is not just black and white with doctrine being either true or false. There can be many levals to somthing being true.
From Betty Ann of NYC:
I just finished listening to you on YOUTUBE ‘Bhikkhuni Ordination’ for about the tenth time in the last month or so.
I accidentally was searching for something else and came upon Ajahn Brahm a few months ago; which lead me learning about Buddhism now. What a peaceful way of life..!!
The Youtube of these ‘talks’ really have been helping me further on my Spiritual Journey. And whatever touches one person than touches others in a chain.
I want to thank you (And Ajahn Brahm).. a heartfelt ‘Thank You’. I feel like I’m growing more conscious and it helps me in my roles as mother(3 children 27;25;15); friend; human; spiritual; neighbor; even in my relationship with a new man in my life.
Betty Ann (I plan on reading your blog too). Thank you.
Thanks so much for the kind words, Betty Ann – I hope the Dhamma leads you where you need to go.
Regards this comment:
“We might scoff at the irrationality of the texts, but consider this: all ancient religious texts contain some material that we consider irrational. They survived against all odds, while countless other texts perished, because there was something in them that motivated people to devote incredible energy and dedication to their preservation. Would a purely rational, empirical Buddhism have survived? We have no examples to show that this is possible.”
What is your perspective on contemporary commentators like Stephen Batchelor’s view – who put forth the idea that all references to re-birth in the Sutta’s are additions to appease the culture of the time, and not necessarily what the Buddha taught.
At what point does one accept Sutta’s as what the Buddha actually taught, and at what point are they up for interpretation – and who decides?
Thanks for any comments.
Dear shen tuang,
shen tuang wrote: “contemporary commentators like Stephen Batchelor’s view – who put forth the idea that all references to re-birth in the Sutta’s are additions to appease the culture of the time, and not necessarily what the Buddha taught.”
This is based on the false assumption that the concept of kamma in the pre-existing culture is the same as the concept of kamma taught by the Buddha. As I understand it , rather than to appease the culture of the time, the buddha’s own concept of kamma and rebirth actually goes contrary to the accepted notion of kamma and rebirth of the time.
Deeds or actions (kamma) in early culture is related to social duties that a person perform , rather than relating to ethical conduct as in the teaching of the Buddha. Early society believed that its welfare derived from the brahmins’ correct performance of the offering ritual. And the belief that the making of offerings as a debt owed to the gods gave rise to the Brahmanic concept of positive acts being the performance of one’s duty. I wouldn’t say that positive acts refer to purity in words , thoughts, and action such as non-killing, non sexual misconduct , and the like when it comes to ‘karma’ in the early pre-existing culture. The conception of duty in the Upanishad does not appear in the elaborate form, but later the Bhagavadgita assigned restricted duty to each caste . Various scholars do not consider “karma” before the Buddha to be the same one that he taught . The Buddha rejected these beliefs and taught karma according to what he directly experienced during the night of enlightenment. Having realized the effect one’s positive or negative words, thought, and action , naturally the emphasis of his teaching relating to karma would be on self-discipline, doing good, and compassion. He didn’t accept the concept of karma before him ( relating to good or bad action performed in ones duty, rituals, and the like) .
shen tuang wrote: “At what point does one accept Sutta’s as what the Buddha actually taught, and at what point are they up for interpretation – and who decides?”
Personally, the sutta is a more reliable source of guidance for enlightenment than people who we don’t know is enlightened or not. One would suggest throwing out rebirth or kamma. Another would suggest we through out mindfulness in daily life. Yet another would suggest we throw out samadhi. Someone else might suggest we throw out Vinaya or sila. Someone might even suggest we throw out Buddha. I ‘ve also heard someone suggest we throw out the sangha. If we follow any of these suggestion, sooner or later there is hardly anything left of the dhamma and would not get anywhere.
Often , I would check what a person say with the sutta itself rather than checking the sutta against what someone who I don’t know is enlightened or not said. I believe there is more chances of experiencing the fruit from following the sutta than a particular person.
If my memory serves me right (which unfortunately is not as certain as I would like!), all references to the Buddha’s 32 marks are found in narrative passages or, in the case of the Lakkhana Sutta, in passages spoken by disciples. The Buddha himself never seems to speak of the 32 marks. Since narrative passages are clearly secondary to the word of the Buddha (the same is true of suttas spoken by disciples) and presumably were added some time after the delivery of the discourse, this would seem to support your conclusion that they are a product of myth rather than fact.
Huh, interesting point. I’ve done a quick check, and the results are that you are generally correct: apart from the Lakkhana Sutta the Buddha rarely refers to the marks himself. There are exceptions. In the Mahapadana Sutta the Buddha describes the marks as they appeared on Vipassi in past ages. In the Brahmayu Sutta the verses have the Buddha dispelling Brahmayu’s doubt regarding the marks. In a similar vein, the standard passage where a brahman sees all the marks ‘except two’ (e.g. Ambaṭṭha Sutta, etc.) has the Buddha reflecting that this is the case and then displaying the two marks. Of course, the very notion that the Buddha not only has genitals covered in a sheath is highly strange; but the idea that he would use psychic powers to show this to people in order to win their faith has to be one of the most bizarre conversion techniques in any religion!
Does this relate to the view of emptyness put forward by other schools of buddhism.
the question “does this (myth) relate to the view of emptyness put forward by other schools” shoulds be in the Myth section.
No, not really. Myth is a simpler thing, not as profound as emptiness. All cultures have myths, and for many cultures these myths tell their deepest wisdom. But the wisdom of myth is ultimately the wisdom of samsara – the inevitable round of birth and death, and the need for our responsible action as human beings. The deep wisdom of Buddhism goes beyond this, pointing to the escape from the round. Emptiness is not a sacred story, it is a revolution at the ground of consciousness.
“Emptiness is not a sacred story, it is a revolution at the ground of consciousness.” I like that. I think I might get a sandwich board made up with that printed on it (or a tattoo on my forehead!) 🙂
Thanks for that.
I see what you mean, although I think emptyness is quite basic too and I find that most people in Buddhism have an understanding of it, apart from myself of course, even though some sects like to think it ‘is the highest’ blah blah. In fact I have met people with severe mental issues who have an understanding of it and also people who have completely twisted the Dharma who understand emptyness, they may not practise realising it but they understand it.
I kinda meant that if things are empty then maybe reality and myth can be the same but then I suppose that would give people license to misuse the Dharma like some sects and cults do.
(1) Sorry a bit unrelated to the topic but…… in Theravarden Buddhism can you get enlightened in this life (I know that is dependant on a persons karma) if they had the right karma Theravarden path does have the means to do that, or not?
(2) Also how many Suttas are there altogether?
1) According to the Suttas, anyone who has not committed one of the 5 heinous crimes (killing parents, etc.) and who is reasonably mentally capable can realize the Dhamma in this life. However, it is commonly held in Theravadin countries that we live in degenerate times (kaliyuga) and it is no longer possible to realize the Dhamma.
2) Thousands! It’s hard to count them exactly, as many of the shorter Suttas exist only as slight, repetitive variants on a single statement. Depending how you consider these texts, you can end up with largely different numbers, although of course this does not effect the meaning of the texts. Also, it is not clear how to count, for example, the verses of the Dhammapada – is each verse a ‘sutta’ or is the collection as a whole a ‘sutta’?
The Pali commentaries record a traditional number of Suttas, which you can find on Wikipedia. This total would exceed 20 000 if the Khuddaka Nikaya were included.
The problem is exaggerated, of course, by the existence of thousands of Suttas from other traditions, mainly in Chinese. Even just counting the early Agama suttas and leaving aside the Mahayana Suttas, the number of suttas in Chinese translation is probably greater than that in Pali. If we were to consider only significant distinct texts, without double-counting those found in both Pali and Chinese, etc., then the number would be much less – perhaps 2000 or so.
I came accross this “Ordinary People Can Get Enlightened” .
I delved into other schools of Buddhism after going to a Theravarden Centre because I thought, (not that I would really know), that while the teacher was good, as a whole I found it very cold and lacking any sort of compassion; which is kinda what I though Buddhism was suppose to be about, and also I didn’t like the patriarchial culture of the tradition at the time.
I like Mahayana Buddhism because it seems to offer, at least theoretically compassion, but venturing futher into those schools requires guru worship, which involves alot of ideas regarding hierachy and control, and worshipping those who are reborn; this bit I have to say, while possibly a tactic use to humble or overcome the ego, I just find adults bowing and scraping to these kids kinda ridiculous and the whole idea of it really scares me in its ability to be so mind numbingly boring, safe and predictabile; ok it is about compassion , but after that I just feel so really really bored with the concept for some reason, like is Buddhism about babysitting these little “holy’ beings.
I am not saying it doesn’t work, but just find it boring, but I have read on this site that all this is not really in the Buddhist teachings, can you elaborate, and how come it is so entrenched if it is not really what the Buddha wanted or taught?
I can’t find the reply button so am replying to your reply about my question here.
(1) “However, it is commonly held in Theravadin countries that we live in degenerate times (kaliyuga) and it is no longer possible to realize the Dhamma”, ….optimism is not exactly a culture trait then, that is not good news.
and (2) Thank you, looks like I have a couple more to go then.. (couple more thousand that is)
Thank you very much for your reply /\
In the early 1900s , it was generally believed that it was no longer possible to achieve awakening. However, Ajahn Sao and Ajahn Mun do not go by this assumption and practiced with good result. The monks who also ignore this belief are Ajahn Thate, Ajahn Maha Bua and Ajahn Chah. And now I believe Ajahn Brahm and other monks as well. The dhamma is available, if a person wants to practice then simply practice that’s all. I would follow the examples of these good monks.
Daisy wrote: “looks like I have a couple more to go then.. (couple more thousand that is)”
Generally, many people in Theraveda practice to become Stream Enterer, Once-Returner, Non-returner, or Arahant in this very life. I wouldn’t think too much about taking a “couple more thousand” life unless you plan on becoming a Buddha .
Thank you for that.
I actually meant a couple more thousand suttas, as for becoming a Buddha i have never really been very ambitious so will leave that to those who aspire to that and have the Karma, best wishes to them.
Daisy wrote: “I actually meant a couple more thousand suttas ”
I thought you meant a couple more thousand lives . My bad. 🙂 🙂
As for the suttas, just the Majjhima Nikaya ( 152 suttas ) and Digha Nikaya ( 34 suttas) provide sufficient information to practice already. Together it is only 186 suttas. I wouldn’t worry about the rest of the suttas unless you have extra time later on.
iMeditation, that is a relief (*_*)
Have you attained “stream entry” yet?
I am still learning. I am not even ordained yet . lol
Don’t you think that you will be able to get there as a lay person?
Some years of uninterrupted retreat or attending regular meditation retreat is crucial to developing the deep meditation necessary for enlightenment. If people have enough time for that then the possibility is there. But often many things can get in the way in the lay life . I believe one of the reasons why the Buddha set up the monastic lifestyle is to create the conducive conditions for developing deep meditation. Whether people apply themselves according to instruction or not while in the monastery that is a different story.
“Some years of uninterrupted retreat or attending regular meditation retreat is crucial to developing the deep meditation necessary for enlightenment”. This is your supposition.
What is your supposition?
If it is just intellectual understanding of the sutta alone then one just need to attend a Buddhist University to get a degree for enlightenment. But here meditation practice is also necessary. And I believe the retreat routine is more conducive to building up your meditation.
I guess a slightly different emphasis in focus. A practice for the here and now. Keeping the practice relivent and real but at the same time having a love for the tradition and myth (Bhante Sujato definition), which has passed through time. I am weary of institutionalized Buddhist teaching.
Peter wrote: ” I guess a slightly different emphasis in focus. A practice for the here and now. Keeping the practice relivent ”
One is likely to run into frustration when looking for enlightenment in a future point in time when the portal is through the present. Grasping creates too much mental movement and oscillation. Even the first step in sitting meditation is Present Moment awareness, then Silent Present Moment awareness, and so on.
I would say that the practice is just the Eightfold Path. It is pretty simple, and straight forward.
Yes I agree it’s pretty simple but we like to make it complicated , for instance – I need to be a bhikku/bhikkuni. I need to do this retreat, here this teacher, acheive this state, have this experience, learn this mantra, learn pali, read these suttas, get this meditation cushion, resolve this scar, sit in the full lotus etc. We build a whole industry for enlightenment, which is always in the future.
If people can just let go of desires, being present, stilling the mind at the drop of a hat then the Buddha would have stopped at the Third Noble Truth and there is no need to have a 4th Noble Truth:
1. ISSUE: Dukkha
2. CAUSE: Craving
3. SOLUTION: Letting go of Craving
4. METHOD: Noble Eightfold Path
The practice of the Eightfold Path can be summarized as :
A. Abandon wrong doing and doing good deeds
B. Being here and now during daily activities and in sitting meditation
C. General understanding of the theory from learning & realization through direct insight ( this can be developed if the other aspects are in place).
I believe a facility such as a retreat or monastery , a cushion, and a text, can be helpful to teach people the skill to tame the mind. If we are using these resources and tools to help us practice being fully present in what is in front of us in every moment of the day , or stillness in sitting meditation then we can directly experience its benefit here and now. And one is content to allow stillness and enlightenment to happen in its own time. It is in this state of mind that stillness and Enlightenment is more likely to unfold and every steps of the journey becomes an enjoyable way of life instead of a practice .
Thanks for that website.
..With regards to the 32 marks, if Wikepedia had been around in the Buddha’s time then maybe the Buddha would have been defined as a women if `sheath’ was one of the marks of a great man (person)
…because Wikepedia defines sheath as: (note number 11)
The outer covering of a cable
Condom, a kind of contraception
Debye sheath, a layer of a plasma in physics
Heliosheath, the region of the heliosphere beyond the termination shock
Koteka, a penis sheath worn by some natives of New Guinea
Leaf sheath of some grasses
Scabbard, a container for a sword or other large blade
Sheath (album), a 2003 techno album by LFO
Sheath, the external genitalia of a stallion
Sheath dress, a type of dress
Vagina, the internal structure of the female genitalia
(@_@) so there
(1) Bh Sujato remarked on possibility of the Buddha’s 32 marks arising from Babylonian influence. I have followed this up in my annotated translation of the Lakkhana Sutta (D 30) = SD 36.9.
(2) Scholar have noted the connection between the Mahaa Sudassana Sutta (D 17) = SD 36.12 is likely to be one of the “root” texts for ideas which later developed into the Pure Land belief. The description of Mahaa Sudassana’s Kusaavatii is very much like those of Sukhavati.
If anyone wants to read these two translations (feedback welcome), do contact me offline. But please feel free to post comments on line.
Great, so you can only be a Buddha or a great man if you have blue eyes. I feel crappy about my brown eyes now. It’s always the light eyes who are connected to ‘great’, ‘beautiful’, ‘special’, etc.
So, I guess we will recognize Maitreya easily. I mean, if Maitreya is going to possess these marks also, it’s not going to be hard to pick him out of a crowd.
Greetings from Holland,
I’m quite sure the Buddha does not have blue eyes. We do not see any Indian, even in the north with blue eyes. This is a translation issue. The Pali word is niila, which is polysemic and has a range of colours. Here is an excerpt from my translation of the Lakkha.na Sutta:
Abhiniila,netto: “Deep bluish-black,” abhi,nīla, where Cone’s Dict of Pali def nīla as “of a dark colour, esp dark blue, blue-black; dark green; blue-green.” Culturally, in the Buddha’s time at least, nīla covered a range of colours from cloud-grey to black and from bluer to green. In other words. it is the colours of the seas, lakes, rivers, and the skies, the most spacious of colours. This covers a range of about 400-510 nanometres of the light spectrum wavelength: http://eosweb.larc.nasa.gov/EDDOCS/Wavelengths_for_Colors.html. The prefix abhi- gives strength to it, making it “deep, dark and radi¬ant.” DP def anhinīla as “very dark in colour; deep black.”
The full annotated translation should be available on http://dharmafarer.org, if not please contact me offline.
Do you have a reference for the idea that the 32 marks might be Babylonian or the Bavāri might be Pāli for Babylon? There is evidence for Persian influences but I have not seen this suggestion before, and have been searching high and low for info of origins.
I just noticed your comment as I dropped by my blog to see if there’s any comments needing approving – it was too interesting to ignore!
Bavari is mentioned as meaning ‘Babylonian’ in the context of the 32 marks in the PTS dict, see note 3 pg. 202, also note on pg. 197. The derivation is straightforward, but the connection with the Mahapurisalakkhana is more tenuous. I don’t take the name ‘Bavari’ as meaning he must have been personally from Babylon – maybe it was a family name.
The Baveru Jataka concerns a (very amusing) trade voyage to Babylon.
There has been more detailed work done on this, i think, but I can’t recall it off the top of my head. I think the connection is a priori plausible for many reasons. First, the Vedic and Avestan cultures stemmed from the same background. Second, the earliest examples we have of great kings are from the Babylonian area (incl. Sumar, Assyria, etc.) Third, those cultures had a vast and complex system of prognostication and signs. Fourth, there was extensive trade between the two regions as far back as the Indus Valley. Fifth, and most important, the oldest Babylonian myth, Gilgamesh, pivots on the same dilemma of becoming a worldly or spiritual hero, which is foundational to the myth of the 32 marks.
None of this proves a definite link, but frankly I would be surprised if there was not. It has receded far into the background of the Buddhist consciousness, however.
Curiously enough, Bavari was said to have been in his past life a certain Katthavahana, who was said to have constructed a flying machine and absconded to the Himalayas.
I’d be interested in anything else you might turn up on this topic…
Thanks for your quick reply. I don’t follow you however. Pg 202 of the PTS dictionary? It’s in the ‘k’ section and I can’t see what you mean. Since we can search it online we know that PTS dictionary mentions Babylon once, and not in this context; that the name bavari occurs once and not in connection with either Persia or lakkhana; that bāveru doesn’t occur at all. Could you please clarify?
The Dictionary of Pali Names sv bāveru cites “Buddhist India”, but Rhys Davids does not give his sources except to cite the Jātaka (which just says bāveru – and we’re going around in circles). On p.104 of Buddhist Indian Rhys Davids says the port of departure is not mentioned! In aṭṭhakathā on J 339 merchants go from Bārānasī to the Kingdom Bāveru by ship (nāvāya bāveruraṭṭhaṃ agamaṃsu).
We know India traded with the Middle East by sea, but evidence suggests that they landed in the west coast, often in the south where they traded for spices and dyed silk. They made use of monsoon and ‘trade’ winds to get back and forth. Michael Wood looks at this in his India documentary. Sailing 600 miles to the sea, then another 4000 miles circumnavigating India and crossing the Indian ocean seems implausible at best.
Any Persian influence was more likely to come through the Khyber Pass. I’ve noted a couple of cases here: http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2008/06/persian-influences-on-indian-buddhism.html
I’m genuinely interested in getting to the bottom of this – spent an hour trying to track the sources down! But we’re not there yet!
Sorry about the confusion, I’m using the pdf from the internet archive.
I don’t quite understand this – could you clarify?
You refer to an essay by Pingree on omens – it sounds fascinating, do you know how i can get it? I’ve long thought there must be a connection (especially after reading Julian Jaynes on the significance of omenology), but I have never pinned it down in detail.
Here’s something from the Introduction to my translation of Lakkhana Sutta (see http://dharmafarer.org):
3.3 POSSIBLE ROOTS OF THE CONCEPT
3.3.1 Babylonian origin? We can therefore conclude that the tradition of the 32 marks of the great man is neither brah¬minical nor early Buddhist. The question then arises, what is the source of the tra¬di-tion? We do have some internal evidence that hint at its source. The Buddhist reciters attributed the tra-dition of the 32 marks to “the brahmins.” However, no such tradition could be found in any pre-Buddhist or contemporary brahminical work of the Buddha’s time. It is possible that “brahmin” here refers to the ancient Babylonian priests.
One of the oldest Buddhist texts, the Pārāyana Vagga, found in the Sutta Nipāta, comprises sixteen questions asked by sixteen youths sent by the brahmin Bāvarī to question the Buddha. It is possible that either Bāvarī was himself a Babylonian, or was familiar with Babylonian lore (such as the superhuman marks).
The questions of the 16 youths (soḷasa pañha) are very ancient, but the introduction, called the “story verses” (Vatthu Gāthā), were added much later, that is, after the Buddha’s time. This introductory story relates how the brahmin Bāvarī sends these six¬teen youths to verify whether the Buddha actual¬ly has all of the 32 marks (Sn 1000-1022).
There is some suggestion that they may be Babylonian in origin: one of the early texts that fea-tures them (Pārāyana,vagga) speaks of a Brahman called “Bāvarī,” which is just the Pali spell¬ing of “Baby¬lon¬ian”; marks and omens of all kinds are rampant in Babylon and related cultures. In addition, the 32 marks are closely connected with the idea that the Buddha is a “Great man,” who has to choose between spiritual and royal dominion. This choice is first expressed in the myth of Gilgamesh, thousands of years before the Buddha, the most famous myth throughout the Baby¬lon-ian region. (Sujato’s blog, 6 Apr 2011)
Historically, Gilgamesh was the fifth king of Uruk (modern-day Iraq and Kuwait) (Early Dynastic II, first dynasty of Uruk), reigning around 2500 BCE for 126 years. He is both a fierce warrior as well as a lascivious man who impregnates brides before their husbands did. In due course, he is “tamed” through his close friendship with a “bull-man,” Enkidu (who is himself “civilized” by Shamhat, a beautiful tem¬ple harlot). They go through many adventures together. When in due Enkidu tragically dies, Gilga¬mesh des-perately seeks eternal life not to suffer the same fate, but fails, and dies tragically, too.
Seals from Harappa (Indus valley in western India) suggest some influence from from Mesopotamia. Among these are the Gilgamesh motif of a man grappling with a pair of tigers and the bull-man Enkidu (a human with horns, tail, and rear hooves of a bull). Among the most interesting of the seals are those de-pict¬ing a god or being seated in meditation posture. As such, Enkidu would serve as a better prototype of the 32 marks than Gilgamesh. Or perhaps, the marks echo the powers and prowess of the two good friends, combined into a single hero. Even then, all this is purely conjectural, subject to confirmation by a closer study of this interesting problem.
Thanks for the input, Piya. I don’t follow your logic here : “As such, Enkidu would serve as a better prototype of the 32 marks than Gilgamesh.” Could you clarify? The reason for mentioning Gilgamesh is not because of iconography (which may be freely borrowed and used for different figures), but in the narrative structure of Gilgamesh’s life, which clearly represents the worldy vs. spiritual dilemma faced by the Buddha.
Thanks. But I still don’t see the connection between Babylon and bāvari. We still do not know why anyone would think that bāveru is Babylon! So to say bāveru is the Pāli spelling of Babylon is completely unsupported. It’s just something that some Victorian scholar said that has never been verified. The single reference from J 339 and it’s aṭṭhakathā makes it seem extremely unlikely! I can’t find any Sanskrit equivalent except as the name of the J with the same spelling. Once we dispose of this “evidence” then the rest looks very doubtful.
There’s no reason to think that Bāvari was not a Brahmin. Or to think that “brāhmaṇa” might apply to a priest from Babylon – even if they were Persian rather than Semitic Babylonian. As far as I know brāhmaṇa is not a word used in Persia. It developed in India out of the usage of brahman after the early Ṛgvedic period, so we would not expect a Persian equivalent. Yes, the Buddhists did attempt to redefine the word, but it was the arahant that was the true brāhmaṇa, not priests in general. In fact more than once the Buddha argues that Brahmins like Bāvari have forgotten their heritage of asceticism.
Vague resemblances in mythic themes tell us nothing. Joseph Campbell amongst others has shown myth to frequently be universal and unrelated to cultural contact.
The Indus Valley civilisation can have no bearing on the issue. Not only is it 1000+ years before the period of the Buddha, there is little or no evidence for continuity between the first and second urbanisations
If you have more evidence I’d be more than interested to see it.
btw your D 30 translation is not on your website as far as I can see.
There are connections between Early Iranian and Vedic Age cultures and between the Avestan and Sanskrit languages. The Early Iranians and Indo-Aryans were once closely related before they separated into their different regions c. 1500 BCE. The Indo-Iranian languages are a single branch of the Indo-European language family. The Persian Zarathustra appears to have been a priest who continued to emphasize the ritualistic use of fire well after the revelations regarding Ahura Mazda, not at all unlike the practices of Indo-Aryan brahmin priests.
There is evidence of similarities.
And there are connections between the Indus Valley civilisation and the society and culture of the Buddha’s time. The organization of the urban centers of Indus Valley civilisation appears to have been based on a caste system, which is a system that the Indo-Aryans most likely adapted (i.e. the caste system of the Indus Valley civilisation very well may be the origin of the caste system of Vedic Age society). And there are many seals from the Indus Valley civilisation that depict the Pashupati, indicating the very early development of the meditation and yogic practices that were embraced by spiritual people among the Indo-Aryans. The samaṇa movement of wandering ascetics, of which the Buddha was a part, likely had its roots in the Indus Valley civilisation.
There is evidence for continuity.
It’s not enough to say there is evidence without saying what it is. I know that the languages are North India are Indo-European and therefore related to Persian. They’re related to English as well! I’d be very interested to see the evidence, particularly for the claim that the sāmaṇa movement of North East India had any connection at all with the Indus Valley civilisation in the far West of the continent.
The languages of North India aren’t just part of the Indo-European language family. They’re part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. In other words, the linguistic and cultural connections between the tribes that settled in the Iranian Plateau and the tribes that crossed the Indus River into the Indian subcontinent were very closely related. The linguistic evidence is, well, evidence. I also mentioned the very similar ritualistic use of fire for religious purposes, used both by Zoroaster and the Brahmin priests, as evidence.
The evidence for the origin of the caste system going back to the Indus River civilization can be found, as I mentioned, in the organization of the urban centers of Indus Valley civilisation. The evidence of the foundations of the urban centers suggests that there was a remarkably high degree of order and that the only basis for that order was rigidly distinct social divisions (there is no evidence of royal palaces or monumental religious structures – ziggurats, pyramids – but there are a lot of public buildings). The evidence also shows that they were masters of water management and suggests that their interest in separating clean and unclean water was not about good hygiene, but about ritual purification, i.e. the daily reassertion of social boundaries. How else could you explain that among all the Indo-European tribes that moved to new homes in the middle centuries of the 2nd millennium BCE, only the Indo-Aryans ended up developing such a distinct caste system? There is good reason to think that they borrowed it from the indigenous people they encountered in the Indian subcontinent.
The best evidence I can think of for the the sāmaṇa movement having a connection to the Indus Valley civilisation includes the many seals from the Indus Valley civilisation that depict the Pashupati, the yogic figure who sits peacefully in meditation among wild animals.
Honestly, I’m not saying anything that isn’t prominent in modern scholarship and largely accepted. For more detailed citations to the evidence, you can do a simple Google search. At Google, you can look at the images of Mohenjo-daro and other urban centers of the Indus River valley civilization. And type in “pashupati”: to see images of both the pashupati seals of the earlier Indus River valley civilization of Northeast India and the holy men of the far West of the continent. You’ll find many discussions of the very early roots of the distinct religious practices of the Indian subcontinent there, too.
Hi Jayarava and Piya,
Re etymology, the online etymology dict says:
Bāveru is virtually identical with the Old Persian form Babiru (changes of b>v, i>e, and r>l are among the most common in Indic languages). I don’t think there is any doubt this is just the Pali spelling of ‘Babylon’. Of course, whether what they speak of is actually Babylon is another matter: the Greeks used ‘Ethiopia’ to refer to anything south where black people lived.
The step to ‘Bāvarī’ as ‘Babylonian’ is a small one (it is not uncommon, even today, to refer to foreigners by the country of origin.)
The word ‘brahman’ is, it seems, used in Persian in the sense of ‘poetry’. From Wikipedia:
The etymology is uncertain, but the connection seems plausible to me; the brahmans were of course the masters of verse, which emanated from Brahma.
On the Persian priesthood, there is an interesting article here on the old Zoroastrian religion.
So the Avestan term for priest is related to the Vedic Artharva rather than Brahmana.
The connection between the myth of Gilgamesh and the Buddha is, I think, more than a ‘vague resemblance’. Gilgamesh undertakes two great journeys: first, with his friend Enkidu, he overcomes the monster of the forest and procures cedar, with which he builds his city and establishes his worldly success. Then after Enkidu’s death he sets out in a spiritual journey in search of ‘the deathless’. These are precisely the two options offered to the Great Man: to become a great king, or to become a spiritual master. This choice of two heroic journeys is not, I believe, universal. Usually, the hero has one main journey, and their spiritual and worldly success come together. This is the basic structure of Campbell’s hero’s myth. This is why, to me, Gilgamesh’s story is so striking. It is a specific variation on the hero myth which I see as having a close affinity with the myth of the Buddha.
More important, Jayarava, is that I think you’re turning upside down the epistemology of, let’s call it the ‘universalist’ theory. It’s obvious that many stories and myths are shared between cultures by ordinary means of transmission – travel, trade, campfire stories and the like. This does not, on the surface at least, require any special explanation. The problem that the universalist theory of Jung, Campbell, and the like addresses is when you have cultures that are separated by vast distances, like say the Amerindians and the Australian aborigines, with no evidence of trade or cultural connection, and they still have myths in common. Their answers, while personally I find them useful, are far less certain than the obvious fact of ordinary cultural transmission.
In the case of India and Persia, we have two cultures that stem from the same source, with the same roots in language, religions, and custom, with verified trade contacts from the earliest civilizations, not too distant in space (although travel was not easy), and so on. In such a case, the default hypothesis should be that similarities arise through cultural contact, and more exotic theories (like Jung’s ‘universal unconscious’) are not required. This of course does not prove anything, but it does suggest that a hypothesis based on cultural contact is a priori a reasonable one.
I do think the Indus is relevant, although you are quite right there is no direct evidence. However, I do think there are connections between the two urbanizations. The IVC was around for thousands of years, and I don’t think they simply vanished without trace.
Incidentally, I am always reminded of the Buddha’s empty seat when i see this image.
Thanks Sujato. This is the kind of argument I was looking for – with detail and references. It seems like a more substantial case. I’m just back from retreat and still catching up, but will mull this over.
Confused by Bhante?
That’s not like him……
Sorry Brian – I’ve been enjoying myself too much…..
Reminds me of playing with my cat when she was a kitten……
So Bhante gave up a music career so he could have you on his blog for eternity (or should I say “many eons” – it is impermanent….).
Maybe I should become a monk? Sounds tempting……
Don’t worry Brian – I’ll pay for it all in a future life…..
Re Mesopotamian Omens see
Pingree, David Edwin, “Mesopotamian Omens in Sanskrit”, in: D. Charpin & F. Joannès (eds.), La circulation des biens, des personnes et des idées dans le Proche-Orient ancien: Actes de la XXXVIIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Paris, 8-10 juillet 1991) (Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 1992), pp. 375-379. [it’s in English!]
Pingree, David Edwin, “Legacies in Astronomy and Celestial Omens”, in: S. Dalley (ed.), The Legacy of Mesopotamia (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 125-137.
Looking at a list of his publications I suspect there is more on this subject as well. I got these via Inter-Library Loans from my local public library, so anyone should be able to get them at a reasonable price.
BTW Persian priests were also called ‘kauui’ = Sanskrit ‘kavi’. (c.f. http://jayarava.blogspot.com/2010/06/philological-odds-and-ends-iv.html). But then we fully expect linguistic similarities between closely related languages even after centuries of separation: e.g. English ‘yoke’, Welsh ‘iou’, Latin ‘jugum’, & Sanskrit ‘yoga’ all from Indo-European *yeug. It requires nothing more than common ancestry to explain.
Is this theory your own observation? I’ll most likely be mentioning it in an essay, and would like to cite the source.
To be honest, i can’t remember if this theory was my own idea or if i picked it up from somewhere – but if there is a source, I can’t remember it! I do believe that the idea of a western origin for the 32 marks has been around…
Re “Sailing 600 miles to the sea, then another 4000 miles circumnavigating India and crossing the Indian ocean seems implausible at best.”
Vāraṇāsī is about 600 miles inland up the Ganges river. It’s navigable, but to get to the Arabian Gulf (and ports with access to Babylon) would require sailing 600 miles west to the Ganges delta; then circumnavigating Indian, and crossing the Indian ocean, which I estimate to be a 4000 mile journey, some of it in the open ocean, in craft built by very simple tools. And then back again! I am saying that this was not a practical journey. I think such a journey might have happened from the west coast of India, but not from Vāraṇāsī.
Fine, thanks for the explanation.
You say: “Honestly, I’m not saying anything that isn’t prominent in modern scholarship and largely accepted”
Actually you are saying things that are prominent, but vigorously challenged in modern scholarship (perhaps our definition of modern is different?). I doubt any scholar outside of India accepts that reading of the Indus seals any more – we are far less than certain than our understanding of the Indus civilisation, and there is very little consensus to speak of. In fact there is an ongoing rancorous debate on it with extreme polarisation of views. There is a review of the research Geoff Samuel’s book “The origins of Yoga and Tantra” (2008: p.2-8). The image sometimes said to be Paśupati is often read quite differently! As he says on p. 7 “In any case we have little or no idea what these so-called ‘seals’ were used for, which makes it difficult to be sure that the images represent scenes of religious significance.” This seems to concur with other things I’ve read recently. Stepping back from the wild assumptions of early 20th century scholarship and soberly re-assessing things is the order of the day. If there is a consensus it is that we have got to rethink everything.
Indo-Aryan languages split into Persian and Indian branches more than 3000 years ago and there is precious little evidence of linguistic interaction between them since – far more evidence for interactions with Dravidian (retroflex consonants, and 100s of loan words!), and even proto-Munda (about 300 words in the Ṛgveda) see Michael Witzel on non Indo-aryan influences on Vedic. C.f. http://www.ejvs.laurasianacademy.com/ejvs0501/ejvs0501article.pdf.
When I say evidence I generally a reference to a published work which presents original research. Re all of these issues the work of Michael Witzel and his colleagues and detractors is relevant. Various issues of the Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies go over these ideas.
The one bit of evidence that is not often cited is the historical fact the Achaemanid empire called the western half of what is now Pakistan (up to the Indus) a “satrap” (really a tribute paying satellite state) during the lifetime of the Buddha (which ever chronology one accepts). Babylon was an important centre in this empire. So it isn’t out of the question that there was contact, but it is doubtful that the Semitic state of Assyria was being referred to separately at that time – it had been thoroughly absorbed into the Persian at the time, to the point of becoming an important Achaemanid administrative centre. Still the resemblance of Baveru is striking.
I note that Rhys Davids refers to this connection in “Buddhist India” (1903) though without citing a source or evidence – perhaps it was self evident back then!
I have to admit that your knowledge of this period is far more detailed than mine! Among other things, you’ve clarified the connection to the Semitic center of Babylon, which was indeed by the time of the Budda incorporated into the Persian Empire (by Cyrus II in the 530s, right?) that stretched to the east up to the Indian subcontinent.
I’m not surprised that recent scholarship is challenging the older view on connections between the Indus River Civilization (which was not confined to the Indus River Valley, btw) and Vedic Age Society and that scholars today want to build their careers on the notion that “we have to rethink everything.”
The older view has merit and should not be discarded in toto. The best explanation for several features of Vedic Age Society that are distinct from other Indo-European cultures is that Indo-Aryans borrowed them from peoples indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and, judging from the physical evidence of the Indus River Valley civilization and anthropological techniques for analyzing it, it’s not at all a stretch to see that this is the origin of many of those distinct features.
In fact, your assertions about the degree to which the languages of indigenous peoples (Dravidian, for exampe) on the Indo-Aryans after they moved into the Indian subcontinent makes the case for both continuity (the Indo-Aryans still spoke languages and maintained cultural traditions that were predominantly Indo-European) and similarity with the cultures of the indigenous peoples they encountered (they borrowed a great deal from them, too, as they created a very distinct set of cultural practices!).
One of the earliest hymns in the Rg Veda, a hymn celebrating Indra’s defeat of Vritra, is believed to relate something very close to the early cultural beliefs of the Indo-Aryans, recording views that have some similiarities to the earliest parts of the Zoroastrian/Persian Avesta.
On the other hand, a Rg Veda hymn to Purusha, which expresses the new beliefs among Indo-Aryans regarding the origin of the developing caste system, is thought to be much later. Doesn’t seem like a stretch at all to think that these later beliefs reflect the influence of the indigenous peoples on the Indo-Aryans as they settled and developed complex society in the Indian subcontinent around the 6th century BCE.
Babylon was an important center of the Persian Empire by the end of the 6th century BCE, but it was still distinct in important ways. The Persians decided to adopt Aramaic (Semitic language) as the official language rather than impose their own (Indo-European) language. At the same time, Darius I (d.486 BCE) felt the need to build a separate capital, Persepolis, in the Iranian Plateau, to rival (at least symbolically) the importance of Babylon. Among the peoples of the Persian Empire at the time of the Buddha, there must have been some perceived distinction between the heartland of the Persian Empire (east of the Zagros Mountains) and the Semitic regions west of the Zagros Mountains.
I’m not saying that there are not similarities. But one has to ask what story those similarities are telling. One can’t just see a similarity, look at the chronology and conclude that one culture has borrowed from the other, even if they live in the same town. There has to be some evidence of borrowing. One has to know the subject area on both sides very well, and be able to find supporting evidence (c.f. comments on yavana and kamboja below)
In the case of Indra and Vṛta the former represents the monsoon and the latter drought. Is the idea of the storm god defeating the monster of drought likely to be specific to a culture? Not really. It’s more likely to be a common theme to all monsoon cultures. I’d bet if you looked that the story is widespread around disparate cultures. A similar experience does not necessarily mean a *shared* experience.
I think you are in error when you say that Persians adopted the Aramaic language. They certainly adopted the Aramaic script – which subsequently formed the model of Kharoṣṭhī and possibly Brāhmī-lipi in India (a century or 2 after the Buddha). Or perhaps you were merely saying that they used it in Babylon, but that is not a fact that would support any of the arguments being made.
I’ll have to concede on many of your points, as I really don’t have the knowledge to assert more than I have already. My point regarding Indra is that he was one of the devas that became prominent among the Indo-Aryans, who came to think of the asuras as power-hungry deities, while the daevas of the Avesta among the Persians became the power-hungry deities inferior to the ahuras, Ahura Mazda rising to the level of true god by the time of Zoroaster. Devas/asuras for the Indo-Aryans, ahuras/daevas for the Early Iranians. Seems like more than a coincidental set of cultural products.
When the Persians conquered the regions west of the Zagros Mountains, including all parts of Mesopotamia, by the 500 BCE, the Semitic languages derived from Akkadian had served as a common language since the time of the Akkadian ruler Naram-sin in the 2200s BCE. The Persians decided to adopt Aramaic as a common language for their empire, as most of the peoples that came under their rule spoke Semitic languages. It wasn’t until Alexander and the Seleucids that it was replaced by Greek, and even then most of the people (including the Hebrews!) continued to speak Aramaic.
Citations from Wikipedia:
I’m a little confused by the reference to “during the reign of Cyrus and Darius,” as this would take the prominence of Elamite up to the end of Darius’ reign in the 490s BCE, even though the conquest of Mesopotamia occurred during Cyrus’ reign in the 530s BCE. In any event, there’s no reason to think that Babylonian culture gave way to Persian influence at all during the lifetime of the Buddha or even centuries after his life. Also, there are accounts like that in Herodotus’ Histories that show Babylonian culture still reflecting practices that came straight out of beliefs like those we find in the Epic of Gilgamesh (yes, the Akkadians borrowed heavily from the earlier Sumerians!) well into the 400s BCE.
Let’s remind ourselves that the name Bāveru occurs in only one text, a Jātaka. Not all the Jātakas are Buddhist. Some are clearly stories that just happened to be going around. For example some are obviously based on Brahmanical stories (e.g. Uddālaka J no.487). Stories like this probably travelled along trade routes which were typically a series of short relays (if later accounts of the Silk Route are anything to go by). It is unlikely that Persians or Babylonians were seen in Magadha. Some of their ideas and artefacts may have been. As I understand the history of contact with that part of the world it was between the Spice Coast and Arabia – making use of monsoon winds to get there and back. (It’s in Kerala that one finds hoards of Roman coins for instance). I’m unsure about the chronology of this, it may have happened in the Buddha’s day, but I don’t recall contacts between Kerala and Magadha being a feature of Indian history at the time – none of the standard histories seem to mention it, and South India was a long time distinct and separate. Bāvari himself walks as fas as the Godhāvarī River, which is mostly in present day Andhrapradesh. Outside of this one mention of Bāveru we have no certain references to Persia or Persians, or Babylon or Babylonians in the Pāli texts as far as I can tell. Lamotte’s comprehensive History of Indian Buddhism doesn’t mention Babylon. I agree that the two names are similar looking, but a reference to a far off land is one thing, and direct contact is another. No other place so far off is mentioned. Indeed where countries beyond Gandhāra are mentioned one is Greek (Yavana) and the other (Kamboja) was probably Indo-Iranian. However Kamboja is supported by other evidence from the Ṛgveda and the Nirukta for instance.
The name Bāvari occurs quite infrequently, and as far as I can tell, only in relation to the Pārāyanavaggo of the Suttanipāta. The obviously related word bāvarikassa is probably in fact a scribal error for pāvārikassa ‘a cloak seller’. (Jat 312 in the VRI CD edition; the word is in the genitive singular). Sujato’s theory relies on the Pāli texts recording this one occurrence of the word accurately. But here some doubt begins to creep in. We could in fact derive his name from pra√vṛ. I’m not saying that this is “the answer”, but is it less plausible than a Babylonian living in Sāvatthī? It’s a very long way from Babylon to Sāvatthī (about 3000 kms in a straight line). Bāvari is referred to as a “a Brahmin well versed in the mantras” (brāhmaṇo mantapāragū). Is there any reason, other than convenience, to assume that “mantra” refers to something other than the Vedic mantras? To be mantapāragu one had to be raised from an early age in the tradition – the memorisation of the Vedas has changed little since that time and it is a demanding and rigorous discipline. And there was great reluctance to teach it to outsiders. He refers to his students as “māṇavā” which is consistent with other Brahmins referring to their students. There is scant evidence here, but all of it points to Bāvari being just what he is described as: a brāhamaṇa.
Contra what Sujato says bāveru and bāvari are unlikely to be related except by scribal error. I’m not convinced that the substitution of e for a here is at all common. If we were treating this word as Indic, it would be equivalent to changing the stem, i.e. to changing bāv from a 1st class verb (bāva) to a 7th class (bāve). I can’t imagine anything other than error causing a change like that. Could Sujato provide a parallel example from Pāli?
Crucially my Sanskrit dictionaries do not list any entries for bāv*, and only a single word bava (an astrological term, and therefore likely be Greek in origin if anything) under bav*. Can the Prakrit speakers have had contact with Babylon, but the Sanskrit speakers not? I don’t have an Ardhamagadhi dictionary, but it would be interesting to check to see if it has any bāv*/bav* words. On the other hand the lack of dictionary entries speaks for an non-IE origin. So we’d need to check proto-Dravidian and proto-Munda dictionaries to eliminate them as a source. Unfortunately I don’t have the facilities to do this.
One last point is that the relationship between Vedic brahman and Old Persian brazman is not universally accepted. My translation of the Avestan Hymn to Mithra notes an entirely different etymology. Indeed as I understand it the etymology of brahman is less than certain. This also would require considerable follow up and seems far from certain.
It may well be worth pursuing, but I think the idea that Bāvari was a Babylonian is too unlikely to be credible and the bulk of the scant information we have points somewhere else. Bāveru may well be Babylon, but again the phonetic similarity may be a coincidence. And the latter would be more plausible in the absence of supporting evidence.
J Attword, A. Sujato and others
What then in you academic researched opinion and knowledge is the meaning of Sheath
Wikepedia defines sheath as: (note number 11)
The outer covering of a cable
Condom, a kind of contraception
Debye sheath, a layer of a plasma in physics
Heliosheath, the region of the heliosphere beyond the termination shock
Koteka, a penis sheath worn by some natives of New Guinea
Leaf sheath of some grasses
Scabbard, a container for a sword or other large blade
Sheath (album), a 2003 techno album by LFO
Sheath, the external genitalia of a stallion
Sheath dress, a type of dress
Vagina, the internal structure of the female genitalia
Wikepedia states apparently that it is “The internal structure of the female genitalia” was the buddha therefore a women, is this referring to the union of male and female ie no sexuality?
PS …when I say union of male and female I don’t mean the mundane version.
I am suggesting it is referring to the fact that a Buddha (or an enlightened being) is neither male or female that it is an analogy or methaphor for this.
Well, I don’t disagree with any of your points here. Clearly, any connection between Bavari and Babylon is problematic. And no, I don’t have any clever linguistic answer to how Baveru and Bavari are related; as you say, the change from e>a doesn’t work. I had simply assumed that, if it was a foreign loan-word, it was not consistent in form (remembering that the Indic dialectical basis was probably different since Bavari is from the south; and that the Babylonians themselves had different dialects, and so on). I still think this is possible, especially given the absence of any plausible Indo-European derivation. Of course, the other significant option, as you mention, is that it’s a non-IE word, perhaps Dravidian or Munda. Any of these options are at least a little unusual, given that Brahmans typically have IE names – are there any counter-examples for this in the Buddha’s time? And anyway, isn’t it at least a little unusual to have a respected Brahman teacher so far south at the Buddha’s time? Which highlights another problem: if there was any influence of Babylonian culture on Indic, we would expect to see that in Gandhara/Kashmir, not in Andhra….
Thanks for the links you gave earlier. They sent me to this fascinating essay:
Click to access panaino2001.pdf
This explores the tale of the gazelle/man/unicorn, and makes a persuasive case that the Rsyasrnga cycle of stories in India (including Jataka 526) is related to Enkidu’s story in Gilgamesh. (And it notes along the way a number of other interesting connections.)
This comes back to the basic point I was suggesting earlier: that the notion of the ‘Great Man’, with his 32 marks and his choice of spiritual or worldly dominion, might be influenced by western (“Babylonian”) ideas. If Enkidu’s story has been adapted in Buddhism, then it makes it more plausible that other aspects have also made it across. Of course, as a Jataka, the story has been formally introduced as part of the Buddha’s biography; and the Jatakas play out in endless variations of detail the same basic crisis. In any case, regardless of the (probably unprovable) question of direct influence, the similarities remain fascinating as the show the different ways the same issues are dealt with, using similar forms and symbolic canons.
Just to return to the basic problem: The 32 marks – what is going on?! There seems to be no persuasive answer from Indian symbolism, and the very curious, in fact I believe unprecedented fact that the Buddhists claim these to be a major part of Brahmanical lore, and not a trace of them appear in the Vedic literature. Any explanation for such a singular situation must be an unusual one. One option is that it came from a foreign influence, and Babylon is one possibility. Of course, this raises a whole range of other problems – why would a foreign doctrine become so widely accepted?
My suspicion is that the situation is as much political as anything. There’s no real evidence for a pan-Indian empire before Ashoka (unless you count the IVC, which raises a whole other bunch of questions…). We know that Ashoka, at the very least, styled himself after the Cakkavatti ideal of the Buddhist texts. Is the whole idea just an Ashokan era claim for archaic authority – or, more likely – does it express a longing for peace and unity, an emerging sense of ‘Indian’ identity that transcends the endless squabbling kingships? A mythic expression, if you like, of a European Union-style solution to the growing horrors of war in the iron age?
Such a longing could well be inspired by vague rumors of a land to the west that (in imagination) had established a vast realm of peace and stability. At or just before the time of the Buddha, Darius’ empire included the north-west of ‘greater India’ (Darius mentions Gandhara in the Behistun inscription). Of course, Darius’ ascension to power was anything but the peaceful fantasy of the Cakkavatti myth, but that’s what fantasy does – take the good bits and gloss over the hard realities. Whatever the historical basis, the dreamlike quality of the myth, the voluntary and peaceful submission of people to their righteous king, shows that there is a great deal of fantasy involved; an ancient Indian version of “Imagine all the people…”.
The facts seem to be clear enough, and I have learned a lot from this exchange. The problem is in the interpretation. If we ask the hard empirical question, ‘Does the existing evidence strongly support the Babylonian provenance of the Great Man mythology?’ then we have to answer ‘No’. And I think this has to be, for now, the conservative position.
But the problem is that this leaves many thing unsolved, with not even a direction for solving them. Of course empiricism has to infer from evidence, but it also depends how we choose our evidence. What if we broaden the question: ‘Does the known historical/cultural picture suggest that some mutual influence between ‘Babylon’ (used loosely as a term for the western empires) and India is possible?’ then the answer is ‘Yes’. And another: ‘Does the state of the evidence permit us to make solid conclusions as to the limits of this influence?’ then the answer is ‘No’. I think it is only reasonable to assume that there are any number of influences that we are unaware of, and will never be aware of.
In this situation, when there is a major unsolved problem in the Indian sphere (the Great Man and the 32 marks), then to look to neighbors for possible explanations is not an unreasonable approach, and any possible indicators of a connection should at least be borne in mind. Again, the idea of a foreign influence does not solve the problems of the Great Man myth, but at least it gives somewhere to start looking.
So then: I still think the idea of a Babylonian influence on the Great Man myth is possible, even likely, but I agree that the state of the evidence make this no more than a tentative suggestion.
Brian (& Bhante for that matter)
Jayarava says re above :
“I’m not saying that there are not similarities. But one has to ask what story those similarities are telling. One can’t just see a similarity, look at the chronology and conclude that one culture has borrowed from the other, even if they live in the same town. There has to be some evidence of borrowing. One has to know the subject area on both sides very well, and be able to find supporting evidence…….”
* Evidence * – that the key word (whether we are talking about the Persians or the secular debate)
It is interesting to juxtapose these comments associated with Bhante Sujato & Santi.
The first is a standard introduction to Bhante & Santi as sent on regular emails to attendees to the Friday night gatherings.
The other is Bhante’s first response after remaining silent for about a month while on retreat @ Santi. (I may be wrong but I have not noticed he has responded to anything else recently on this blog.)
About the Good Life
The teachings are presented by Australian born Buddhist monk, Bhante Sujato, the Abbott of Santi Forest Monastery (http://santifm.org/santi/about/) in Bundanoon, NSW. The emphasis of the approach taken is on authenticity, depth, and practicality.
Take this opportunity to deepen your meditation practice with the support of an experienced and respected teacher.
Learn insightful ancient teachings on understanding the human mind and how they apply to your life.
Ask any questions you may have at the Q&A session at the end.
o sujato / Sep 2 2011 12:08 pm
I just noticed your comment as I dropped by my blog to see if there’s any comments needing approving – it was too interesting to ignore!
Bavari is mentioned as meaning ‘Babylonian’ in the context of the 32 marks in the PTS dict, see note 3 pg. 202, also note on pg. 197. The derivation is straightforward, but the connection with the Mahapurisalakkhana is more tenuous. I don’t take the name ‘Bavari’ as meaning he must have been personally from Babylon – maybe it was a family name……
Could anyone please explain how Bhante’s response to Jayarava is helping us “learn insightful ancient teachings on understanding the human mind and how they apply to your life”?
To the Committee of Santi Monestry
Could anyone please explain why the slanderous attacks on Bhante Sujato continue.
Seriously this persons goal and vindictive intent it seems to try to create and spread malicious “gossip” about buddhism and Buddhists and to undermine everything that is done by this site is ridiculous.
If it does not stop soon I suggest you get his IP tracked and send it to his internet service and they can take action against him.
Also maybe his full name should be given here so that other Buddhist groups can be on the look out for this person should he take his discrimination and harrassment of it seems ordained Buddhists to other Buddhist groups.
Also I think the committee or whoever runs this internet site should seriously consider limiting question to the host of 3 a week. This might go someway to stopping people who have nothing better to do with there time than troll Buddhist websites denegrating and slandering Buddhists out of ill-will and vengenence from doing this.
Theblogger I am referring to in the post above is obviously the poster that goes under the name of “Geoff”
Dear Geoff & myth-lovers,
I’m fascinating my Buddhist myths and mythology, and in a way grew up with the Greek myths as fond memories of my childhood days. Let me see if I can say anything interesting or useful. Firstly,understanding myths can help us “learn insightful ancient teachings on understanding the human mind and how they apply to your life” because the Buddha speaks of two kinds of language: the “drawn out” (niitattha) and the one “to be drawn out” (neyyattha). The first are direct teachings using some kind of Dharma terms like “:impermanence, not-self, etc”. The second can range from images to parable to mythical suttas like the fabulously splendid myth of meditation called the Mahaa Sudassana Sutta.
Secondly, we all love stories, and from myths come some of the most fascinating stories. This is the stuff of Fairy Tales and Star Wars with which many, if not all, of us grew up. I have been working on “Buddhist Mythology” in vols 36a & 36b of the Sutta Discovery, and just finished them, but have yet to put them all online, as I am now working on a new volume.
Anyway, the very first article in SD 36a, “Myths in Buddhism,” opens with these excerpts:
1.0 A myth is a story that is bigger than we are, lasts longer than we do, and reflects what lies deep in our minds and hearts, our desires, dislikes and delusions. To recognize and understand myths is to raise our unconscious into clear mindfulness, so that we can work with it to evolve into true individuals and wholesome communities. A myth breaks down the walls of language, with which we construct our worlds of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches. Next, we begin to identify with these creations like a creator-god priding over his fiats. Then, we delude ourselves that we have the right to dominate others, other nations, and nature herself. Since we have deemed ourselves superior to others, we surmise that we have the right to command and rule others, to be served and indulged by them. This is the beginning of slavery and colonialism.
A myth uses language, our most common means of mass communication, but a myth tweaks language in such a way as to speak to us in parables and images so that we can see beyond the words and the thoughts into the heart of reality. The more we understand myths, the less enslaved we are by the wily words and ways of others, and even our own devices. We begin to be emancipated from the limitations of philosophy and religion, of crafty priests and priestly crafts, of the limiting views and habits entrenched in our own hearts. We are on the inward path to realizing our true individuality and liberation.
 This a working def we will be using for our study here. For a more comprehensive lexical def, see 2.0 below.
 As a rule, I use “unconscious” for the latent tendencies; “subconscious” for the rebirth consciousness; and “pre-conscious” for the motivational mind in connection with conscious actions: see The unconscious = SD 17.8b (6).
 This is not an exhaustive or academic study of myth, but a reflection in connection with early Buddhist teachings (esp its content and function). For the Buddha’s life as myth, see The Buddha as myth = SD 36.2. For a helpful intro to mythology, see eg Robert A Segal, Myth: A very short introduction, 2004 (with a biblio).
With metta to all.
Sorry, the first line should read: “I’m fascinated by Buddhist myths…” (the fingers are faster than my brain 🙂
Looking to Persia for the source of the 32 marks we run into the same problem as looking to Brahmanical texts. We don’t find them. All kinds of other interesting things, but not the marks. Well at least not yet. Perhaps because almost no one studies both Indian and Persian literature?
This is kind of off the subject but I just want to mention that I am enjoying your chat with Ted Meissner on the Secular Buddhist podcast.
I just started listening to a few minutes on the train this morning to work. You were saying some interesting things about rebirth & poking some holes in Ian Stevenson’s “scientific research”.
You have an interesting mixture of Kiwi & Pommy accents!
You might be interested in Bhante Sujato’s view on Stevenson in his response to me in July:
o sujato / Jul 18 2011 5:10 pm
Stevenson’s work has ‘too many holes’ – ha! With all due respect, the seriousness, methodology, and almost obsessive care with which Stevenson has painstakingly assembled his evidence and addressed his critics over decades leaves Batchelor’s historical work in the shade.
I have to say when all things are considered you have to wonder how many young men especially tall, good looking and relatively well known musicians (every males dream, no doubt)…probably with hoardes of young women admirers, would give up chasing fame and fortune to live a simple and virtuous life, helping others and teaching the method for people to get out of suffering, a method that unlike even new age spirtual seekers specifically forbides the rewards of money and sensual desire.
Most people just continue day after day chasing greed, living the delusion that worldly life is somehow good and happy, and with anger and hatred gnawing away at them like a cancer, never having the intelligence and insight to see that this worldly life is not the way to happyness – very few people especially it would seem intelligent and gifted people with the world at there feet would be insightful enough to see through that and even brave enough to try another path; to look for real happiness and freedom.
While the academic side of his teachings are a little bit over my head, it still seems obvious that it is quite something that someone could be so versed in the suttas, running his own monestry and teaching the dharma, not to mention doing the important job of translating the original Buddha’s teachings at a relatively young age.
I suppose it shows a different kind of mind or something, even superior kind of mind, very unlike the ordinary mundane mind.