A mythology of cultural transformation in the Ghaṭīkāra Sutta

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Most interpretation has focused on reading the text through a naive realist lens, as a historical document.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.


Oh, this essay is just one more example of why I start my day, after the French pressed coffee is made, with Sutta Central.


@AnagarikaMichael, same here; :slight_smile: I just use an Italian moka pot. :coffee:


Matt, I just googled the Italian Moka pot. Looks great! I strive for coffee the consistency of tar. I’ll have to try the Italian way :slight_smile:



Their relationship is fascinating- wisdom and common sense crossing the caste and scriptural divide.

with metta



lol, you might want to look into the Turkish method, that stuff is like sludge (not my personal taste, but to each his own).


@SCMatt, if the preparation involves whirling dervishing, I’m there!


You only use coffee because it helps you meditate… obviously.

with metta


Great analysis! Nicely done.

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I am so glad you guys got exactly the right message from this essay!


I love these kinds of mythic and literary excavations! But … I have doubts and questions:

How do we know this? Although Ghaṭīkāra turns down the gift from the king, I do not get the idea from the story that the reason he turns it down is because he is already wealthy. He tuns it down because he has a highly restrained way of life and eschews wealth beyond what is needed to maintain a very modest living and to care for his parents, and also because he selflessly understands the king has many cares and responsibilities, and can probably use the gifts for other purposes.

It appears to me that Ghaṭīkāra is a humble potter living in a grass-roofed house with his parents. Yet he is willing to give much - even the grass from his roof! - and is satisfied with little. In effect, he even gives his well-earned spot in the sangha to his dear friend Jotipāla, because he cannot forsake his duty to his parents.

It’s hard to imagine that Ghaṭīkāra could be some fancy, new-style pottery entrepreneur, given that he does not dig large quantities of clay with either tools or his hands, but restricts himself to making vessels “from the soil of a bank that is crumbling or scratched out by rats and dogs.” In other words, he harvests what he can naturally from what crumbles away via natural processes - not much of a lucrative livelihood in that! And the fact that he barters his wares and does not handle money - gold and jewels - makes it unlikely that he is involved in high-level artisanal manufacturing.

Also, my understanding is that the Kumbhars were outcasts in the Brahminical system. If so, then Ghaṭīkāra is not even a Shudra. He can’t barter his pots very easily with the well-to-do, because they are ritually unclean.

Ghaṭīkāra’s pot is filled with congee, not the fancy rices the king’s messengers deliver at the end. I note also that when the Monks remove the grass from Ghaṭīkāra’s roof, the roof is left unrepaired for three whole months. Not being able to repair a grass roof for months does not seem like a likely event in the life of a well-to-do artisan from the rising affluent bourgeoisie.

If the above is correct, then the fact that Jotipāla regards Ghaṭīkāra as his dear friend, and is willing to bathe with him, and endure Ghaṭīkāra pulling on his belt and tugging on his hair without having him thrashed, speaks very highly of Jotipāla’s goodness, in Buddhist terms. Clearly, Jotipāla is already a very good person with a partially reformed, un-Brahminized disposition and instinct for the dharma.

The story is divided into two halves. The first half ends with Jotipāla’s going forth, after which we hear nothing about him. A poignant aspect of the story, then, is that it concludes with the Buddha’s identification of himself with Jotipāla. It seems to me that the moving moral of the story is that even he most humble of humble lay supporters can do great things in life. They can inspire kings to acts of beneficent giving by the powerful example of their great virtue, and through courage, persistence and selflessness, they can even propel others onto Buddhahood itself.

Something else that moves me about the story is the fact that Ghaṭīkāra keeps missing the Buddha Kassapa! The Buddha comes to his house twice, and some of his monks come another time at the Buddha’s direction, but each time Ghaṭīkāra is out. And yet his faith is such that even without the presence of the Buddha to feed his sight, he is overjoyed with the Buddha’s confidence in him.


The grass roof is of an annex or hut, probably his workshop. Anyway, grass roofs are awesome!

This is missing the point. The economic value is not in the raw materials, but in the processing. This was a demanding, skilled, and specialized work. Northern Black Polished Ware was a luxury good, and the specialized production of it was one of the factors that spurred trade in the region.

Interesting, do you have a source for that?

Having said which, such modern classifications can’t be applied to ancient times without independent support. Technologies that once were new become old hat, and once respected artisans become drudges. There are a number of places in the Pali canon where various low livelihoods are mentioned (eg. AN 6.57: “outcastes, bamboo-workers, hunters, chariot-makers, or waste-collectors”) but potter is not among them.

I know, right? Wouldn’t you be miffed? “Oh, yes, the Buddha came while you were out, again.”

Another thing I noticed is the whole Little Red Riding Hood motif. It literally says, “Who’s been eating my porridge?”!


A wonderful essay Bhante.

This is one of my favourite suttas and now even more so.

I always felt uneasy about the how a humble potter was able to feed such a crowd…but I left it aside as I just loved the sutta…Now it makes so much senes. Thank you so much!

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For monks maybe! :slight_smile: Anyway, I don’t think the roof in the story is part of an annex. It’s just identified as the roof of the house. The story makes a point of how, even though the roof was uncovered, the sky did not rain in upon the house - presumably because Ghaṭīkāra and his parents are protected by their virtue. The point falls a bit flat if the grass roof is just on an annexed workshop.

Yes, but there is really nothing in the story that suggests Ghaṭīkāra makes fancy black polished pottery, or is anything other than a maker of the ordinary daily kind of pottery, most of which has by now disintegrated back into the earth. He barters the pots and jars he makes for fragments of rice and beans. And it’s really pretty unrealistic to think that a highly esteemed artisan of the other kind of high-end pottery would make use only of crumbles and rat-scratchings. Surely bringing rats and dogs into the narrative here is a way of underlining Ghaṭīkāra’s simplicity and lowliness.

Apparently I’m wrong about this. The contemporary Kumhars, who are an ancient tribe with their own lore and traditions, include both Hindus and Muslims. Caste Hindus regard the Muslim members of the tribe as outcastes, but apparently accept the Hindu members as Shudras. And you’re right that it is alwasy iffy to project the latter Brahmanical classifications back onto the Brahmanical society of the Buddha’s time.

I guess the ax I am mildly grinding here is a concern about a certain way of reading early Buddhism. Many scholars like to emphasize that Buddhism ultimately spread long the trade routes, and take from that the idea that it was popular among the merchants and rising bourgeoisie and “new men” of the second urbanization. This narrative seems to be especially appealing to the middle class Victorians and their successors in the 20th and 21st centuries who might be reading their own favorable attitudes about modern commercial capitalism and wealth generation, and about the “bourgeois revolution” against the old landed aristocracy, back onto ancient India. They turn the social dimension of the Buddhist story into a social struggle between new Buddhist townsmen and old Brahmin landlords with agricultural plantations.

Maybe that’s the way things eventually turned out after a couple of hundred years, with the rise of big settled monasteries, a wealthy donor class, and the mainstreaming of the dharma into a socially respectable and politically well-established religion. But my feeling is that the older strata of the narrative tells a different story. The Buddha is a committed, counter-cultural hermit-renunciant from a hinterland clan, alternating his time between living on the fringes of settled society, and living far away from it in the forests. The main social conflict is not between town and country, but between forest and “civilization” - towns and farms both included in the latter. He wears rags and begs for survival. His reputation for wisdom and holiness had spread, which leads to many people going far afield into trackless forests to seek him out - something the suttas seem to recall, but obscure by transforming these “forest” dwellings into nice suburban compounds. He preaches the abandonment of worldly life as the best life, and second-best an extremely abstemious, chaste and detached form of life “in the world”. He gathered around himself other dropouts from every stratum: including the extremely poor, the unclean, dwarfs, widows, runaways, lepers and hobo philosophers. The posh and respectable bourgeois Buddhism with its mega-donors and stable patronage, and friendly attitude toward worldly money-making and prosperity, comes later in my guess.


Bhante, I thought EBT are authentic.
If this sutta is not authentic why should I consider others as authentic?
Sutta start with “thus have I heard” , so do you think they (Arahants) are lying and can not be trusted even to observe the five precepts?

natthi kho, bhante, ghaṭikārassa kumbhakārassa nivesane tiṇaṃ, atthi ca khvāssa āvesane tiṇacchadanan
There is no grass at Ghaṭīkāra’s house, but there is a grass roof on his workshop.

Two words, two buildings.

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Ah. I was relying on the translation here on this site, which seems to treat nivesane/āvesane distinction as a distinction between the dwelling and the house on it, not between the house and the shed. So first, Kassapa asks the monks to go to Ghaṭīkāra’s place and see if he has any grass at his dwelling they can use. They come back and say that the only grass he has is the grass on the roof of his own house.

But Bhikkhu Bodhi translates the pair as a distinction between the house and shed. And MN 140 also uses āvesane in a way that clearly refers to the shed or workshop.

I guess it would be bad enough if it rained in on a potter’s workshop, since potters have to work with moist clay and fire.

Hi Bhante Sujato,

I already wrote to you on a related thread – The Gods are all drunkards – about what you intended by Buddhist mythology. (Your answer made sense to me).
Continuing in this vein, a friend and I were wondering if you meant that Kassapa (as the Buddha that preceeded our Buddha) was also of mythological origin?

Though another (but related) subject matter, I was wondering if you might give a more precise explanation of what Ajahn Brahm means by mind made realms when he refers to the lokas of rebirth. Is it or might it related to what R. Gethin is referring to in this article on the jhanas?

What functions do the various levels of existence and the gods play in the Nikayas? There is no one simple answer to this question, but I shall answer initially by stating more fully what I identified above as the second principle of Buddhist cosmology, namely, that particular kinds of action of body, speech, and mind lead to certain kinds of rebirth. The passages I referred to in this connection effectively draw up a hierarchy of kamma that corresponds very closely to the hierarchy of levels of existence. At the bottom of this hierarchy we have unskillful kammas leading to rebirth in the realms of hell, hungry ghosts, and animals; next we have the skillful kammas of generosity (dana) and the precepts (sila) practiced to various degrees and leading to rebirth as a human being or as a deva in one of six realms of heaven; finally the practice of meditation (bhavana) and the development of the various jhanas leads to rebirth among “the gods of Brahma’s retinue” (brahmakayika deva) and beyond. At this point we should remind ourselves that kamma is for the Nikayas–as for Buddhist thought generally–at root a mental act or intention; acts of body and speech are performed in response to and conditioned by the quality of the underlying intention or will (cetana); they are unskillful or skillful because they are motivated by unskillful or skillful intentions. (18) Acts of body and speech are, as it were, the epiphenomena of particular kinds of mentality; they are driven by specific psychological states. In a very real sense acts of body and speech are acts of will. Thus the hierarchy is essentially one of certain kinds of mentality (understood as kamma) being related to certain levels of existence; this is most explicit in the case of the various jhanas and Brahma realms. This way of thinking demonstrates the general principle of an equivalence or parallel in Buddhist thought between psychology on the one hand and cosmology on the other.

Many of the stories about devas from different heavens in the Nikayas lend themselves very readily to a kind of “psychological” interpretation, that is, to interpretation in terms of certain mental states; in certain contexts this interpretation is explicit in the texts themselves. In the vana-samyutta of the Samyutta Nikaya there is a whole series of accounts of devas visiting bhikkhus dwelling in the forest in order to admonish the bhikkhus for their laziness. (19) Here the devas serve to arouse skillful states of mind in the bhikkhu that spur him on in his practice. Similarly in the Mara- and Bhikkhuni-samyuttas Mara is represented as appearing on the scene and tempting bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, and the Buddha, with the world of the five senses. (20) Here then Mara appears to act as the five hindrances (nivarana) which are precisely the mental states that one must overcome in order to attain jhana, and it is precisely jhana that–at least according to a later understanding–takes one temporarily beyond the world of the five senses and out of Mara’s reach. (21) To read these texts in loosely psychological terms is not, I think, to engage in acts of gratuitous “demythologizing”; the Buddhist tradition itself at an early date was quite capable of demythologizing–so much so that one hesitates to use such a term in this context. It is rather, I think, that this kind of psychological interpretation was for the Nikayas inherent in the material itself.
The equivocation between cosmology and psychology is particularly clear in a passage of the Kevaddha-sutta. (26) The Buddha tells of a certain bhikkhu who wished to discover where the four great elements (mahabhuta) ceased without remainder (aparisesa nirujjhanti). It seems that we must understand this as wishing to know the full extent of the conditioned world-both physical and mental. The bhikkhu appears to have been a master of meditation, for we are told that he attained a state of concentration in which the path leading to the gods appeared to his concentrated mind (“tatharupam samadhim samapajji yatha samahite citte deva-yaniyo maggo paturahosi”). He then proceeds to approach the gods of ever higher levels to pose his question until eventually he finds himself in the presence of Mahabrahma himself, who confesses that he cannot answer the question and suggests that he return to the Buddha to put this question to him. The Buddha answers that the four elements cease, not “out there” in some remote outpost of the universe, but in “consciousness” (vinnana). (27) This account states very clearly how specific psychological states–in this instance, the mind concentrated in the various levels of meditation–give access to particular cosmological realms. Thus the bhikkhu is explicitly described as at once making a journey through various levels of the cosmos and making an inner, spiritual journey–a journey of the mind.
The story of the bhikkhu in the Kevaddha-sutta to which I referred earlier is in fact a rather precise parable of this understanding of the progress of the Buddhist path. The bhikkhu of the Kevaddha-sutta resorts to increasingly subtler states of consciousness and/or levels of the cosmos in order to seek an answer to the question of the ultimate nature of the universe; and yet, having come to the furthest reaches of the universe, he does not find his question satisfactorily answered but must return to the Buddha and be instructed to reorient his quest. Similarly, the bhikkhu who attains jhana does not come to the end of the path but must turn his attention elsewhere in order finally to understand the nature of suffering, its cause, it cessation, and the path leading to its cessation.

_It is in the light of this close correspondence that exists in Buddhist literature between journeys through the realms of the cosmos and inner journeys of the mind that the significance of the accounts of the expansion and contraction of the universe begins to be revealed. Stanley Tambiah has already drawn attention to this in some comments made in his study of the Thai forest monastic tradition–comments which are, however, brief and do not articulate the nature of the parallels entirely accurately. (57) Buddhist cosmology–in general, but especially in the account of the contraction and expansion of world-systems-provides us with a poetic, imaginative, and mythic counterpart to accounts of the stages of jhana attainment. Reading accounts of the Buddhist path alongside tales of the universe’s end and beginning is the way to enter more fully into the thought-world of ancient Indian Buddhism. In particular, what is revealed in the cosmological accounts is the understanding of the nature of the fourth jhana: both the theoretical accounts of the stages of the path and the mythic descriptions of the contraction of the world-system converge on the fourth jhana._…


Any comments would be much appreciated.


He is spoken of in mythology, and nowhere else, so he’s not amenable to the kind of fact-checking which might even potentially qualify him as a subject of “history”. But discussion of mythology has nothing to do with the question of whether someone “exists”, only what their story means.

Here is an answer I made earlier on the mind made body.

In discussions of rebirth, a mind made body has the same meaning: it is a subtle energetic form. It refers to any realm of rebirth that is more subtle than, say, ours, but that is not yet formless. This includes the jhana realms.


Many thanks, Bhante.