Bhava Sutta in Mahabharata


I found a snippet of the Bhava Sutta (AN 3.76/77) quoted in the Hindu epic Mahabharata(MB), and I believe it has preserved a better reading than the Pali version that has come down to us.

In the Shanti Parva of the MB, while talking about various after-life theories, a view is quoted as “Kecid aahuh” i.e. “some say”; This is followed by a versified extract from the Bhava sutta containing the simile of field, seed and moisture;

But there is a significant difference:

Pali Bhava Sutta : Field = Kamma, Seed = Vinnana, Moisture = Tanha

MB versified quote : Field = Avijja, Seed = Kamma, Moisture = Tanha

Pali :

MB :

2,211.031a avidyākarmaceṣṭānāṃ ke cid āhuḥ punarbhavam

12,211.031c kāraṇaṃ lobhamohau tu doṣāṇāṃ ca niṣevaṇam

12,211.032a avidyāṃ kṣetram āhur hi karma bījaṃ tathā kṛtam

12,211.032c tṛṣṇāsaṃjananaṃ sneha eṣa teṣāṃ punarbhavaḥ

I feel that the MB version is more accurate because:

  1. The same Bhava Sutta talks of ‘vepakka’ or ‘fruition’ of Kamma; So it is more natural to suppose Kamma is also the seed/bija which comes to fruition.

  2. The second version of the sutta (AN 3.77), which I feel is the more accurate, says ‘cetana’ is established (instead of ‘vinnana’ is established as in AN 3.76); Now, Buddha famously said ‘Cetanaham bhikkhave kammam vadami’;
    If Cetana is established/planted, it makes more sense for Kamma to be the seed/bija which is planted since Kamma = Cetana;

  3. The Sutta talks of two contributing factors for bhava - Avijja and Tanha; (Avijjā­nīvara­ṇā­naṃ sattānaṃ taṇhā­saṃ­yoja­nā­naṃ); So it would be natural for both Avijja and Tanha to be mentioned in the simile; The pali version does not include Avijja in the simile whereas the MB version does;

  4. The simile and the explanatory wordings in the Sutta make better sense with the MB version;

Avijja = niivarana = Field
Note : ‘Niivarana’ is a term related to ‘aavarana’ and occurs together with it in Tipitaka; Both stem from the same root vr/vrnoti meaning to cover/conceal. The field covers/conceals the seed; So Avijja which is the nivarana being the field is more apt than kamma being the field;

Tanha = Samyojana = Moisture
Note: Samyojana is to bind well; Moisture binds seed to field/soil. Both MB and pali version agree in making Tanha the moisture that binds.

Kamma = Cetana which is patitthita = Seed
Note: Kamma ripens. So Kamma being the seed is more apt.

Question : Does anyone know of any parallel agama version in chinese/sanskrit/tibetan or through quotations in vasubandhu etc where a buddhist source corraborates the MB reading?
Any other comments - esp. on the philosophical implications?


Interestingly in a simile from AN 3.33 kamma is also a seed:

“Suppose, bhikkhus, there are seeds that are intact, unspoiled, not damaged by wind and the sun’s heat, fecund, well preserved. Then a man would burn them in a fire, reduce them to ashes, and winnow the ashes in a strong wind or let them be carried away by the swift current of a river. In this way, those seeds would be cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated so that they are no more subject to future arising. So too, any kamma that is fashioned through non-greed … non-hatred … non-delusion, born of non-delusion, caused by non-delusion, originated by non-delusion, is abandoned when delusion has vanished; it is cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, obliterated so that it is no more subject to future arising.”


I haven’t even thought of the MB being a possible source for sutta-variants, brilliant! It has taken over so much vocabulary from the suttas, which shows how influential the sutta-reciters must have been among the epic poets. So I guess it’s natural that bigger chunks of sutta-content have found their way into the MB as well. And maybe the MB versions were spared from buddhist redactions, so I hope you find more observations like these!

I think you’re right in seeing the sutta as inconsistent:
"If, Ānanda, there were no kamma ripening … consciousness the seed"
either kamma should be the seed, or consciousness should be ripening

In terms of philosophy I personally see the content as to vague to read something into it. vinnana can ripen, or kamma can ripen. I’m afraid I haven’t delved into the subtleties of kamma-fruition in the suttas.

Does anyone know of any parallel agama version in chinese/sanskrit/tibetan

SC gives ‘EA2 42’ as a chinese parallel for AN 3.76, maybe @sylvester can take a quick look?

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SN 22.54 confirms consciousness as a seed:

Consciousness together with its nutriment should be seen as like the five kinds of seeds

Maybe both have been used in different contexts as seeds and the SN understanding spilled over into the AN?

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May I just say, this is really well spotted! The connections are clear and strong, and it seems certain that the Mahabharata is drawing on the Buddhist passage here. While it is true that the general imagery of the field, seed, and so on, is quite widespread, this is too specific to be a coincidence. It is probable that it was using a different version of the text, of course. Given that, as you note, there are two different Pali versions, it is likely the source for this also differed.

The Chinese parallel at EA2 42 has the following. The punctuation is, I think, wrong, so I have corrected it, but most of the terms map pretty clearly on to the Pali.

罪   為   地,  識  為  種,  欲 為 愛

kammaṁ(?) khettaṁ, viṇṇāṇaṁ bījaṁ, taṇhā sneho

The most difficult is the first character, which (as is normal) can stand for a wide variety of Indic terms. Kamma is not listed among those terms on DDB, but most of the examples are some sort of bad kamma. (See below) Perhaps kamma should be added to this list.

(*pāpa; akuśala, agha, atyaya, adattâdāna, adhyāpatti, aniṣṭa, aparāddha, aparādha, apâya, apuṇya, āgas, karma-doṣa, kaśmala, kāma-mithyâcāra, *garhya, gārhya, duścarita, duṣkṛta, doṣa, dauḥśīlya, pāpaka, pāpatā, vṛjina, sāvadya, supâpaka)


Here’s what I found -


Translating roughly, it goes as -

karma is the field (for) consciousness, it is the seed of sensual desire*, (it is) craving and foolishness

I have to confess, the last bit is tough and I could not see a better way to translate it, unless this is a EA peculiarity where the reader is expected to know what to read into the text. Or perhaps, this is genuinely a case of the EA suffering a textual loss, given the apparently difficult circumstances of its translation. I’m sure @llt can do a far better job.

  • it seems to be a feature of every Chinese translation I’ve seen, that kāma and kāmā is translated only as kāma. If we assume that 欲世 refers to the world of sensual things, then the 2nd part would read as “it is the seed of sensual things”.

For an alternative, I’m entertaining the possibility that it can be translated as -

Karma is the field (for) consciousness, the seed is the sensual (world), craving is delusion (or pond).

Although 癡 is delusion, as the vehicle of a simile, it does not make sense. I wonder if this might not be a case where 池 (pond) might not have been mistaken for 癡 during the transcription process. Both words sound alike in modern Mandarin and Cantonese (apart from the tones) but we’ll need a Middle Chinese specialist to confirm if the 2 words sound similar enough to be confused in that era.

See my translation above, I am pretty sure that the corrected punctuation is how it should be.

But actually looking again, I think the following phrase should be added, it fits the pattern:

罪   為   地,  識  為  種,  欲 為 愛, 癡 為 冥

kammaṁ(?) khettaṁ, viṇṇāṇaṁ bījaṁ, taṇhā sneho, avijjā tamo


Good catch on the punctuation. I foolishly followed the punctuation in my translation.

I just revised it again, see correction.

But I’m not sure; even though the Chinese follows exactly the same pattern, the Pali is starting the next phrase, avijjanivarananam sattanam. So is the Chinese repetition just a coincidence? Or did the translator mistake the syntax? Or maybe their original text was different?

In any case, the main point is that the three basic terms seem to be the same, that is, if you are agreed that 罪 stands for kamma.


Even with the punctuation corrected, I still have a wee bit of a problem with -


This 欲 would have to refer back to kāma of 欲世.

I agree, against my contemporary Chinese sensibility that it means bad kamma.

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Only if it’s being consistent. But 欲 is used for each of the three realms, so here it must stand for taṇhā, whereas in 欲世 it is kāma.

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Interesting! do I understand correctly then that in the chinese parallel vinnana is still the seed? sylvester’s first rendering was ambiguous so that it could be kamma as well…

Chuck it! I translated according to the punctuation (which made for nonsensical reading). But as Bhante Sujato points out, the punctuation is wonky. His translation makes eminent sense once you amend the punctuation and ensure that 為 is placed in between the vehicle and tenor of each metaphor.

Apologies for the laughable attempt.


Thank you all for your responses and input!
Sylvester, so to conclude, the Chinese EA tallies with Pali assignments?

My feeling at the moment is this:
The Bhava sutta was important enough at the time when this section of the MB was compiled(perhaps early centuries CE), to be quoted as the representative view of how rebirth occurred;
This would make it the ideal candidate for inspiring the Sautrantika/Vasubandhu theory of Karmic seeds(of which I have only an extremely superficial understanding).

Its a pity that the entire Sanskrit Sarvastivada canon has not survived; I assume Vasubandhu/Sautrantikas would have used the Sarvastivada version and the EA translated above is from a different school…

PS: Bhante, I didn’t know you could read ancient chinese!

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Yup, save that the Chinese includes avijjā tamo.


Shh, don’t tell anyone! My secret is that I used to be a guitar player. And one thing I learned is that hardly anyone can tell if you’re faking. “Do you know such and such?” “Sure!” And then you just go for it, and hey, it might work!

But seriously, I just the Chinese lookup tool on SuttaCentral. It’s awesome! Of course it is very limited, but in cases like this, where the text is very much parallel to the Pali, you can figure it out—sometimes doing even better than people who really do speak Chinese.

So you think we should accept this? It still bothers me …


Well, darkness is a pretty poor fit with the rest of the agricultural metaphors used for growth. Unless that redactor felt that Existence is like white asparagus :sunglasses:

I’m not sure if I’m getting the problem across. Here is the full passage. We have established the close parallel for the first section, so what of the next?

kammaṃ khettaṃ, viññāṇaṃ bījaṃ, taṇhā sneho.
Avijjā­nīvara­ṇā­naṃ sattānaṃ taṇhā­saṃ­yoja­nā­naṃ hīnāya dhātuyā viññāṇaṃ patiṭṭhitaṃ

It seems to me that the Chinese is a direct, albeit looser parallel of the Pali here, too. This would suggest that 癡為冥 parallels not avijjā tamo (as I speculated earlier) but avijjā­nīvara­ṇā­naṃ, harking back to the sense of ­nīvara­ṇa as “shroud, covering”. The remainder offers a somewhat expanded version of what’s in the Pali.

The details are probably not that important, the point is whether it is justified to read this text as supplying an additional item to the three-fold metaphor of the Bhava Sutta.


Oh devas above! We’re psychically linked.

Just after I sent off my reply, it occurred to me -

Hmm, to grow white asparagus, one needs to cover them. Why didn’t the redactors add another metaphor for the ­nīvara­ṇa to help the baby asparagus sprout?