A new (?) theory on the composition of the Āmagandhasutta

I previously wrote some notes on the Āmagandhasutta here. While writing my introduction to the Sutta Nipata I went into it a little more deeply and came up with a new theory as to its composition. I’m not sure if anyone has proposed this already, but the sources I have checked do not mention it (Bodhi, Norman, Jayawickrama).

The Āmagandhasutta (“Carrion”, [snp2.2]) is one of the few early discourses to directly discuss vegetarianism. An unnamed interlocuter claims that pure folk only eat vegetables, not lying to get what they want. The list of foods appears to be purely wild vegetables and grains, so he appears to be advocating a diet of vegan food gathered from nature. This was a traditional ascetic practice found among certain circles. In the Jātaka stories we hear many times of brahmin renunciates who retreated to the Himalayas to live on such a diet, which was regarded as a special mark of ascetic prowess (eg. [ja536]). The speaker, it would seem, is familiar with such ascetics. He criticizes “Kassapa” for eating delicious food cooked by others. And he calls out Kassapa’s hypocrisy in claiming that “carrion is not proper for me”, yet all the while he is eating rice with the flesh of fowl. This seems to be the basis on which he hints Kassapa has lied to get good food.

The word translated as “carrion” is āmagandha, literally “raw smell”. It’s the smell of a rotting corpse, and doesn’t have any intrinsic connection to meat-eating. Rather, it appears throughout the Suttas in the sense of “moral decay or corruption” ([an3.128:2.2]). According to the Mahāgovindasutta, it was Brahmā Sanaṅkumāra himself who taught that the real meaning of “carrion-stench” was the defilements such as anger ([dn19:46.15]). Thus Kassapa in the Āmagandhasutta, who is identified as a “kinsman of Brahmā”, is advocating the same position as Brahmā himself. But only the Āmagandhasutta connects the notions of “carrion-stench” and eating meat.

Before proceeding, let’s briefly review the position of the early texts on meat. It is accepted as normal throughout the Suttas and Vinaya that the Buddha and his community ate meat if they wished. Nonetheless, when the topic comes up it is usually hedged with cautions and restrictions.

In the Jīvakasutta, the layman Jīvaka reports the rumor that the Buddha eats meat specially killed for him ([mn55]). The Buddha denies doing so, and repeats the well known Vinaya allowance that meat or fish may be eaten by a mendicant unless it is seen, heard, or suspected to have been killed on purpose for the mendicant. Normally a mendicant will simply accept whatever is placed in the bowl, and since they wander at random through a village, no-one is preparing food for them specially. The bulk of the Sutta shifts focus to the elevated practice of the four divine abidings and restraint by the mendicants, and analyzes in detail the ethical boundaries that are crossed by someone who kills an animal to offer the mendicants. From the moment they order the beast to be fetched for killing, they make bad kamma. Thus the emphasis of the Sutta as a whole is not to justify meat-eating but to establish the strict criteria under which meat-eating is permitted, and to graphically illustrate the evil of killing for food.

In the Vinaya itself, the threefold allowance is not the only word on meat-eating. A mendicant is forbidden from eating ten kinds of meat—human, elephant, horse, dog, snake, lion, tiger, leopard, bear, and hyena ([pli-tv-kd6:23.1.1] ff.). And given that it is not always obvious whether such meat is being served, it is an offence to eat any meat without first having checked that it is allowable ([pli-tv-kd6:23.9.9]). It’s also an offence to accept raw meat ([dn1:1.10.9]). Meat is regarded as one of the luxurious foods ([dn26:19.6]), asking for which is forbidden ([pli-tv-bu-vb-pc39:2.10.1]). Certain ascetics, including Jains, refused all meat ([dn25:8.5]), but the Buddha resisted their pressure to follow suit, since their argument was in bad faith; it was based on the false accusation that he ate food slaughtered for him ([an8.12:31.4]). He likewise rejected Devadatta’s proposal that all mendicants must be vegetarian, along with a range of other ascetic practices, as it too was merely a pretense to attack the Buddha. Instead, he left the decision with individual mendicants ([pli-tv-kd17:3.14.13]). Other ascetics went to the opposite extreme, consuming only meat and alcohol, apparently trailblazing the path for certain delusional spiritual teachers today ([dn24:1.11.4]). While the position of brahmins on meat is ambiguous, there is at least one passage where a brahmin laments his meat-eating as being unrighteous ([pli-tv-bu-vb-sk69:1.32]).

Thus the general position of the Suttas on meat-eating for mendicants is to restrict its usage and leave the final decision up to the individual. As for the lay folk, there are no special pronouncements as such, but it is considered wrong livelihood to trade in animals or in meat, and of course it is wrong to kill or harm an animal under any circumstances, or to have one killed. Again, there is restriction without prohibition.

In this discussion, I have left the identity of “Kassapa” aside. It is a common name for brahmins. The Sutta is concluded with two verses which, according to the commentary, were added by the redactors at the Council. It’s an unusual ending, which suggests that a pre-existing set of verses were adapted for the context. Now, in these closing verses “Kassapa” is identified as a Buddha, who must be the legendary Buddha of the past of that name. Obviously such a legendary attribution cannot be taken literally, but rather is another sign of an imported text. Further, the main series of verses, which end with the tag line “this is carrion, not eating meat”, deal only with general ethical matters and don’t have any distinctively Buddhist teachings. The last two verses of the teaching (before the closing verses) lack this ending tag. They say nothing of “carrion”, but contain a Buddhist criticism of Brahmanical ideas of ritual purification.

So the Suttas attribute the teaching on “carrion” as moral decay to Brahmā. And the relevant portions of the Āmagandhasutta are purely a discussion between two brahmins, with all the Buddhist content added later. It seems to me, then, that the main teaching here is a Brahmanical dialogue that was adopted as a Buddhist text by adding some framing verses and a background story. Perhaps this explains why, while the position on meat-eating here does not technically contradict that found in the rest of the canon, it does have a more pushy vibe, lacking the tendency towards constraints that we find elsewhere.

The puzzling thing in all this is the question of supply and demand. Economic theory tells us that demand for a certain good drives its production. If people buy more meat, suppliers will kill more animals. But the Suttas don’t think in terms of a generalized concept of economic demand for meat, only a personal and individual one. To us, this seems like such a natural and obvious argument, yet even the Buddha’s critics don’t make it. Why is that?

In pre-industrial societies, the supply of meat is relatively fixed. Chickens run around the yard, cows graze in a field, fish swim in a stream. A certain number of animals are killed for their flesh, but well-functioning societies do not over-cull and deplete their supply. But too many animals is also a problem, as they eat the crops. Typically, larger animals are killed for celebrations or special days, or when the supply becomes excessive and must be burned off. This is ritualized in the form of the sacrifice. In addition, there are no simple means to store large quantities of meat long-term, so animals are usually slaughtered and eaten right away.

Thus the early texts employ the concept of “available meat” (pavattamaṁsa): it was either there or it wasn’t. The animals would be killed regardless, which is why it only becomes an ethical issue for the mendicants when animals are killed on purpose for them. There’s a good illustration of this in the Vinaya ([pli-tv-kd6:23.2.8]). The laywoman Suppiyā tried to order some meat, but there was none for sale in the city of Benares, since no slaughtering had been done that day. No meat in the entire city: unthinkable to us, but normal to them.

There was no concept of increasing the supply of meat to cater for demand, because the material means of increasing supply simply did not exist. It is only in recent centuries, with the application of scientific and industrial techniques to animal husbandry, that we have learned to expand the supply of meat at will. Producing more meat takes energy, and that energy is supplied by fossil fuels.

Arguably, the concept of “available meat” no longer applies, except in limited cases such as roadkill. All meat is produced on demand, even if that demand is indirect. When monastics accept meat, this acts as an implicit endorsement for the lay community, so that even those who were formerly vegetarian start eating meat. This contributes to expanding demand for meat in society as a whole.

This demand drives the machinery of death in the slaughterhouses, the grotesque horrors of the factory farms, the grim scouring of the oceans, and the ecocidal lunacy of climate collapse. Those who eat meat belong to the most privileged generation that has ever lived on this planet, blessed with an astonishing quantity and variety of delicious foods, yet they choose to demand the flesh of living creatures. It is certainly possible to argue that this is “allowed” in the ancient texts. But the economic, material, and social context has completely changed. Is this really the best we can do—to take what we want because we can get away with it?


omg Jordan Peterson

It is certainly the case that their economic theory was less developed. But it’s also possible that this economic “law” simply wasn’t as true at the time.

Full-time, professional armies and trade guilds, etc that would come to dominate India in later centuries were almost unheard-of in the Buddha’s day. There was the varna / caste system, but even that was a relatively loose and flexible division of labor, with plenty of “warriors” and “Brahmins” doing farming, pottery, etc.

I haven’t spent a lot of time among the hill tribes here in SEA, but what I have seen of traditional farming is that there’s simply x number of chickens running around :laughing: … as many as can feed themselves on the scraps and worms. Nobody is making a big effort to grow more chickens let alone calling themselves a “chicken farmer.” In the pre-industrial, agrarian society, my craving for chicken can only very slowly translate into “supply-side changes” if at all. Usually, I just have to adapt myself to whatever is available.

From an economic perspective, this is “inefficient” but from a chicken’s perspective… cluck! :chicken:


I imagine that in ancient time, there is less method of preservation. There is no refrigerator yet. Ice house is non existent in North India, and to get snow you have to move closer to Himalaya.
Salt is also a luxury, ocean is far away.

Meat is a luxury, and to get meat you have to slaughter an animal today or yesterday. Trading on meat is more limited.

So people only eat meat on certain special days, or occasion, or celebration.
And if a monk happen to pass by and beg for food, he will get meat.

In this case, if a monk specifically ask for meat in that time period/ place, almost certainly an animal will be killed as a result.

It is different from our circumstances today.

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Poor misunderstood fellow. He left twitter in a huff a few days ago because people were being mean to him. It’s so unfair? All he did was wake up and exercise his god-given right to use the wisdom and faculties he has been blessed with as an educated human being of the male persuasion to inform us all what was wrong with the body of a model who was a plus-size woman of color. After all, she had to temerity to both exist and not fulfill Jordan Peterson’s fantasies, so what could she have expected?

Oops, he made a huge drama about leaving, and now he’s back giving us … lessons in courage? :person_shrugging:

Right, yes. Supply and demand works if you have the concept that supply is elastic and can be expanded at will. But that takes energy, and in a pre-industrial civilization there simply isn’t a lot of excess energy sitting around. It’s not until we learned to dig up coal and burn it that we had the energy to massively expand supply.

Which, purely by coincidence: when India recently announced plans to double coal use by 2040 (!), our friend Jordan Peterson just had to come out in support of it. :roll_eyes:

Yes indeed, also true.

These are both great ideas, and I’ll adjust my essay accordingly.

Right. These days there are more vegetarians and vegans than ever before. But people also eat meat much more than ever before. Now it’s every day, usually several times a day.


Truly an inspiration for us all

Exactly! And know-how. Did they have artificial insemination in the Buddha’s day? And they certainly didn’t have antibiotics, growth hormones, etc. Even if they had the surplus calories and political will to increase meat supply, they’d have then faced significant technical barriers.

As, indeed we are facing with climate change :confused: Thankfully we have courageous leaders like Peterson and Modi to show us the way :rofl: :sob:


There’s so many implications to these ideas, I’ll have to think them through some more. But for now, I’ve updated the post based on the ideas of Khemaratana and Prajnadeva.

Selective breeding, tractors, fertilizers …

Also, I think I’m changing my rendering from “carrion” to “putrefaction”.

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Surely they had selective breeding since waaayyy back (see domesticated dogs and maize and so on). And yes, fossil fuels were a big step up for tractors and fertilizers, but they did have oxen :laughing: :ox: :ox: :poop:

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Breeding, but not “selective breeding”.

Sir maybe it is possible of them having selective breeding at that time…because descendance was important thing at that time as seen by varna-caste system prevalence, where first of all it mattered that who is the father or what is the lineage. So maybe meat eating was norm even though not practised largely but it might be regulated to large extent. Unlike present :(.
And we see many times in sutras that lord buddha and sangha was served food of hundread flavours, many times specifically at the last day of retreat of rainy days. So if that’s true then maybe people were actually largely better cook of (vegetarian) foods compared to present. And hence maybe it was less of a question of eating nonveg then. I think meat is favoured by people(in present days) because, it is cheap(not in economic context but as in getting satisfaction of taste). Preparing tasty non veg food is easier than preparing tasty veg food. Veg food requires more effort to be put, in order to prepare mouthwatering taste, unlike nonveg, where even average cook can get a good taste…so to seek satisfaction of taste people turn to non veg, as it’s easy to kill chicken than to put effort in preparing veg food(& succeeding in that).

Selective breeding of both plants and animals has been practiced since early prehistory; key species such as wheat, rice, and dogs have been significantly different from their wild ancestors for millennia, and maize, which required especially large changes from teosinte, its wild form, was selectively bred in Mesoamerica. Selective breeding was practiced by the Romans…

But, anyway, I agree that all these techniques were significantly improved since the industrial revolution thanks to fossil fuels and so on. :grin:

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On top of the animals killed by farmers to protect crops and reduce competition, more than a million of those kangaroos will be professionally shot for human and animal consumption and to make leather. It is, depending who you talk to, the most sustainable and ethical meat trade in the world, or a monstrous violation of animal welfare that involves the murder of joeys. The weight of the evidence is on the former, but there are welfare concerns.


International scholars of Jainism (Dundas, Ohira, Bronkhorst, Balcerowicz…) tend to agree that the early followers of Mahavira did not:

It seems clear that the early Jain ascetics were not totally strict vegetarians and that, like the Buddhists, they could accept meat as alms if an animal had not been specifically killed for them (Paul Dundas, The Jains)

I suppose this was the result of having to beg for alms, and it would last for centuries in South Asia. A thousand years after the Buddha, the Visuddhimagga (13.3) defines ‘food’ as either the meat & rice diet or the (forest ascetic’s) windfall fruit diet (sālimaṃsodanāhāro vā pavattaphalabhojano vā). Still no chance of vegetarian alms, it would seem…

The Sīha Sutta is often interpreted as the early Jains protesting the Buddha’s carnivorous ways, but what they actually say is that an animal was specifically killed for him. As if that was the line for them too…


Oh, interesting. I had my doubts about this. I’ll revise it accordingly.

Just looking at the passage I had referred to there, I see I was too loose: it says tapassī acelako refuses meat, and I assumed this included Jains.

But at mn36:5.3, the same practice is ascribed to “nando vaccho, kiso saṅkicco, makkhali gosālo”, and pointedly not to Mahāvīra. So it would seem that vegetarianism was a practice of certain of the ascetic sects, just not the Jains.


There probably were some vegetarian tapassī, but I surmise that having to go for alms (if they ever did) would have been a form of tapas.

In his book on the Ājīvikas, Balcerowicz writes that “Gośāla and his first disciples most probably did not abstain from meat either”, and that it likely took two or three centuries before the Jains prescribed vegetarianism and rewrote their history: “what agreed with moral tastes in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE ceased to satisfy the ethical and corporeal palate of subsequent generations”. (See the continuing debates on sūkaramaddava, etc.)


I’m traveling so don’t have access to sources, would you know what his grounds are for that? Because the sutta is pretty explicit.


It’s difficult to summarize because it builds on his main thesis, namely that Mahāvīra was a disciple of Gosāla and adopted Ājīvikan practices and ideas. He reviews the evidence for meat eating among the early Jains, and suggests that the carnivore naked ascetic in DN 24 might be an Ājīvika. Of particular interest is the Jain (and only) account of Gosāla’s life, where he is associated with Mahāvīra for six years. At the end of the story, Mahāvīra eats a rooster killed by a cat, after rejecting two pigeons specifically prepared for him—which may shed some light on how he and Gosāla dealt with alms in their years of wandering together.

Remember that the Mahāsaccaka goes on to say that sometimes Gosāla and the others give up their ascetic practices and get fat by eating “excellent” foods (uḷārāni , which the commentary interprets as paṇītāni, i.e., meat, fish, ghee…). I’m not sure if one can make much of it historically; to me it almost feels like satire (“and that is how there is increase and decrease of this body”). But I agree that the exclusion of Mahāvīra may be significant, as if he did not fit that ascetic ideal.


Okay interesting, thanks. Of course it’s entirely possible that he was vegetarian for some time, and ate meat at other times. Maybe he was the original flexitarian!