The Ghaṭīkāra Sutta (MN 81) has attracted a fair amount of attention and analysis. It’s one of the very rare early texts where the Buddha explicitly identifies himself as one of the protagonists, and thus it qualifies as a canonical Jātaka. In addition, it features a past Buddha, Kassapa, which makes it even more distinctive, as it tells the story of our Buddha as the student of a past Buddha.
Most interpretation has focused on reading the text through a naive realist lens, as a historical document. But it is a myth, and should be seen as such. If you haven’t done so already, perhaps you might check out my previous little essay on mythology:
And there’s a number of other resources on D&D if you’re interested. Here I won’t spend time on the theory, but will offer some remarks on what seem to me to be interesting features from a mythological point of view.
The story in the past is primarily set up as a tension between two close friends, Ghaṭīkāra the potter and Jotipāla the brahmin student (māṇava). Despite their closeness, they have a bit of a conflict over the question of visiting the Buddha. Ghaṭīkāra is the Buddha’s closest supporter, but Jotipāla dismisses the Buddha with the usual brahmanical sneer and will not go to see him. This is, of course, the Refusal of the Call, an essential element of the hero myth.
Nevertheless, Ghaṭīkāra persisted. Eventually, not only does Jotipāla visit the Buddha, he is so impressed that he goes forth as a monk.
Now, the story of a fight between close friends or brothers is one of the fundamental motifs of myth. In the west, we will immediately think of Cain and Abel. Here, the conflict is much less violent—as Buddhist myth tends to be very gentle—but the basic conflict is there.
The motif of the conflict between brothers stems from the role of myths in telling stories of creation. In the beginning, all is one. But the world is diverse, so this diversity is explained by telling stories of conflict and separation. This kind of secondary creation myth is very common, and is a normal feature of Buddhist myths, such as the Aggañña Sutta. They serve to explain various features of society and culture, such as the origin of the caste system, the institution of kingship, family and kinship rules, and so on.
In the story of Cain and Abel, as is well known, the brothers are identified as a grower and a pastoralist. Thus the conflict mirrors the division of society as the means of food production become more specialized, requiring very different lifestyles and moralities.
Such figures in myth are a kind of culture hero. A culture hero is not necessarily someone who conquers monsters in the traditional sense, but who introduces a defining feature of a particular society: a crop or technology. Such heroes may be human or divine, or, frequently, demigods. A famous example is Athena, who introduced the olive to Athens. In Egypt, Osiris was celebrated for introducing beer. In the Indian tradition, we have, for example, the legendary king known as Okkāka in Pali or Ikṣvaku in Sanskrit, whose original fame was probably to introduce sugar.
Now, to return to our sutta, it is interesting that the livelihood of Ghaṭīkāra is emphasized so strongly. We learn quite a lot about how he does his work, the ethics of how he sources materials, and his economic policies. He refuses to charge for his work, but offers it freely in exchange for provisions. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he is evidently a man of some wealth, who has no need to accept a gift from the king, but can support a large community on his own. This suggests that his role as a potter had a social standing that is quite different from what we might think.
But there are also things that are not apparent in translation. Not only is he described as a “potter” (kumbhakāra), but his proper name actually just means “jar-maker” as well. So he is basically “Potter the Potter”. Whether he should be considered the forefather of the famous wizarding clan I will leave as a question for future inquiry.
Even more interestingly, but he is referred to by the Buddha with his clan name “Bhaggava”. Now, this is a rather obscure term. Elsewhere in the Pali (MN 140) and in Sanskrit texts such as the Mahābharata it is also associated with potters. It is an ancient and significant clan in the Brahmanical lineages.
The etymology is from the root bhā, meaning to shine or light light up. It means the descendants of the bhṛgu, who are sometimes identified with Venus, and who according to the Sanskrit dictionary, are:
a mythical race of beings closely connected with fire, which they find and bring to men, or enclose in wood, or put in the navel of the world;or which is brought to them and first kindled by mātari-śvan-; they are also said to fabricate chariots, and are mentioned together with the aṅgirasa.
The PTS dictionary expresses doubt as to how this word came to be associated with a clan of potters. But surely this is obvious: fine pottery needs firing. In order to develop advanced pottery technique, the clan of potters had to work out new and unprecedented levels of mastery over fire, burning hotter and more consistently than ever before. Along with the metallurgists, they were the pioneer industrialists. So the name bhaggava means “those who have inherited the mastery of fire from the progenitors”.
So bhṛgu are clearly identified as the culture heroes of fire, and this supports our argument that Ghaṭīkāra might also be seen in the same light. Fire, however, is a tricky thing, and the mastery of it doesn’t come all at once. It’s one thing to light a fire for cooking, quite another to make a kiln for pottery. I have discussed earlier, one of the key inventions that distinguished the cultural progress of the civilizations around the time of the Buddha is that form of fine, luxury pottery known as Northern Black Polished Ware.
If Ghaṭīkāra, rather than being a mere humble craftsman, was associated with the development of an emerging, game-changing technology like Northern Black Polished Ware, this would explain why he was able to command such respect and economic resources.
What then of Jotipāla? Well, he is clearly positioned as an archetypal exponent of the old Brahmanical ways. His criticism of the Buddha as a “baldie, fake monk” (muṇḍaka samaṇaka) is a familiar protest, found for example in the criticisms of Mahākaccāna by the brahmin students of Avanti, which I have also identified as a signifier of cultural shifts.
While Jotipāla is explicitly identified as a brahmin student, his proper name once more conceals a further nuance. It’s one of the most common names assigned to archetypal brahmins in Buddhist texts, so using it is like saying there was a Scotsman named McDonald. But it is more specific, for the name literally means “guardian of the sacred flame”. Of course, the worship of fire was fundamental to the Vedic religion, and lay at the very roots of Indo-European culture. Fire worship was one of the chief duties of the Brahmins.
Given the echoing of these names, we can see the culture myth here revolving around two different attitudes to fire. For the brahmins, fire was a sacred force, an expression of the divinity of nature, to be honored and propitiated. For the new generation, fire was an energy to be harnessed for human will, to transform materials for economic progress.
Given the inherent conservatism of cultural forces like Vedism, it seems inevitable that such shifts did not happen without conflict. For the new industrialists like Ghaṭīkāra to take over the mastery of fire, bending god to their will, must have seemed like an unforgivable transgression on the brahmin’s sacred heritage.
Our sutta expresses this gently and elliptically. When Ghaṭīkāra fails to persuade Jotipāla to visit the Buddha, he says, “Okay, well let’s go to the river for a bath.” And of course, this too is a pregnant moment, for bathing is another sacred act. After Jotipāla has bathed, and is thus spiritually purified and renewed, Ghaṭīkāra goes so far as to grab him by the head. This is a seriously taboo act, a transgression over a line into sacred ground. Yet Jotipāla doesn’t get angry, but rather realizes that this is an expression of the seriousness of Ghaṭīkāra’s intent. The breaking of taboos, the dissolving of traditional boundaries, is an essential precursor to ascending to a higher plane of consciousness. When that line is breached, the walls come tumbling down. And so Jotipāla consents to visit the Buddha.
In this story, the Buddhist tradition is situated as a natural ally of the new social, technological, and economic forces that were changing everything about society. It stands against the old traditions, the clinging to the past, and sides with the new, with progress.
But this is not a blind endorsement of progress. It is a guide to how progress should happen, based on kindness, generosity, and caring. Ghaṭīkāra may be the one who challenges brahmanical authority, but he also looks devotedly after his old, blind parents.
Though the environmental impact of pottery might seem trivial to us, the text is careful to point out that Ghaṭīkāra refuses to even dig up the soil, for fear of hurting the little creatures. This subtle rule of ethics, a point of commonality between Buddhist and Jain monastic rules, shows that economic progress, while good in itself, must not be at the expense of what is more valuable: the earth herself.