Brahmanical Traditions (Snp 2.7)

I have previously made some notes on the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta. I’ve been doing a more substantive essay, and am posting it here. It’s in an unfinished state. It goes into some detail especially in the Brahmanical texts, so I’m hoping for some feedback.

Asked by some senior brahmins about the ancient brahmanical ways, the Buddha laments that brahmins have fallen far from their pure ancient traditions ([snp2.7]). The nadir was the ritual slaughter of cows, a vile practice that was specifically called for by the brahmins themselves against the outraged cries of the gods.

The notion that contemporary brahmins had fallen into corruption is found elswehere in the Suttas. The Soṇasutta speaks of five ancient brahmanical practices that today are only followed by dogs, not by brahmins ([an5.191]); all five are also in the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta. If this feels too harsh, the Chāndogyopaniṣad includes the famous “prayer of the dogs”, where brahmins are compared to dogs begging for food (ChU 1.12).

The Buddha depicts ancient brahmins as having been renunciant seers devoted to austerity and meditation. This generally accords with the description in the Aggaññasutta ([dn27:22.6]), although not every detail is the same. There, they are said to have gone to the village for alms, whereas here food was left outside their doors; there, taking up recitation was felt to be a decline from meditation, whereas here their devotion to chanting is praised. Nonetheless, the overall tenor is that the brahmins lived then much like the bhikkhus do today.

The text is full of fascinating details, and while the overarching message is clear, it is not easy to know how to read it. What exactly is the source of the Buddha’s information? It’s tempting so simply attribute the knowledge to the Buddha’s psychic powers. But the text itself says nothing of this, and, as a useful rule of thumb, it’s better to prefer the lesser miracle.

Might the depiction be simply a legend or parable, a just-so story invented by the Buddhists to show their superiority to the brahmins? There’s no doubt that there is something to this; obviously it is from a Buddhist point of view. The lifes and values of the ancient brahmins are markedly similar to the mendicants who followed the Buddha, and the text certainly serves to exalt that way of life. The oldest Brahmanical text, the Rig Veda, is not a renunciate text; it glorifies the gods for the sake of worldly prosperity. We know that an ascetic tradition emerged within Brahmanism, but it’s a stretch to argue that this was the normal and accepted practice among ancient brahmins. There is a world of difference, however, between selecting details to tell a story, and simply making things up.

Does the text perhaps reflect things that the Buddha had seen and heard around him, things said by brahmins, or about them? There are many things that are lost to us—as they were even to brahmins of the Buddha’s day. Possibly, although if it were common knowledge, you’d expect that the brahmins would not have to ask the Buddha about it.

There is at least one detail that suggests the text is, in fact, drawing on specific Brahmanical sources. The text refers to a period of 48 years of the “spiritual life”. Some manuscripts add komara (“boy”) here; but this is hypermetrical, and must have been copied over from [an5.192:5.4], which says this was a period for learning the “hymns”, i.e. the Vedas. Clearly this refers to an apprenticeship under a teacher from the time of childhood to master the Vedic texts. The Suttas speak of boys as young as sixteen as having achieved such mastery.

The practice of brahmacariya is not common in pre-Buddhist texts; it’s referred to only once in a late Rig Vedic verse (RV 10,109.05), and occasionally in the Chandogya Upaniṣad (ChUp 2.23.1), where it appears as one of the ways to attain a heavenly rebirth.

A more promising connection is found in the old Brahmanical law books. Like all ancient Indian texts, the date of these is uncertain, but they are not too far from the Pali canon. In the Baudhāyanadharmasūtra we find the same concept of brahmacariya that is described in the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta.

aṣṭācatvāriṃśad varṣāṇi paurāṇaṃ vedabrahmacaryam
For the ancients, the studentship for learning the Vedas lasted forty-eight years.

Likewise, the Āpastambadharmasūtra attributes to “some” (eke) the same period (Ap1.11.30.2: tathā vratena-aṣṭācatvāriṃśat parīmāṇena). The similarity is too pronounced to be a coincidence: both Buddhist and Brahmanical sources speak of a period of forty-eight years for studing Vedic mantras, and this is ascribed in both cases to the ancient brahmins. At least in some details, then, the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta must be drawing upon genuine Brahmanical traditions.

I wondered whether these texts would reflect other aspects of the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta. As I’m no student of the Brahmanical texts, I’m not in a position to assess all the different traditions of Brahmanism, but perhaps a simple survey restricted to the Baudhāyanadharmasūtra might help answer our question. Let us go through the first portion of the text and see how the ideals of brahmin as described in the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta and Baudhāyanadharmasūtra compare.

A brahmin should be restrained ([snp2.7:2.1]: saññatattā; Baudh saṁyata ātmā) and austere ([snp2.7:2.1]: tapassino; Baudh tapasvī). They owned no cattle, ([snp2.7:3.1]: na pasū brāhmaṇānāsuṁ; Baudh viṭsvadhyayana-yajanadāna-kṛṣi-vāṇijya-paśupālana) for their true wealth was in recitation, which was a gift from Brahmā ([snp2.7:3.2]: sajjhāyadhanadhaññāsuṁ brahmaṁ nidhimapālayuṁ; [Baudh] brahma vai svaṃ mahimānaṃ brāhmaṇeṣv adadhādadhyayana). They lived a mendicant lifestyle (Baudh, Baudh, Baudh bhaikṣa-arthī grāmam anvicchet), accepting food freely donated by others ([snp2.7:4]; Baudh ayācitam asaṁkḷptam). Despite their asceticism, and in a quite un-bhikkhu-like touch, they wore multi-colored robes ([snp2.7:5.1]: nānārattehi vatthehi; Baudh citra-vāsasaś citra-āsaṅgāvṛṣākapāv).

When married, a brahmin only approached his wife for sex during the fertile fortnight of her period ([snp2.7:9]: aññatra tamhā samayā utuveramaṇiṁ pati antarā methunaṁ dhammaṁ nāssu gacchanti; Baudh 4.1.19: ṛtau na upaiti yo bhāryām anṛtau yaś ca gacchati). An interesting difference is that for the Brahmanical text, it is an equal offence to have sex outside the fertile period, and also to not have sex in the fertile period. The Buddha adopts the former detail, but not the latter: Buddhism is not a fertility religion. It’s also noteworthy that for the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta, marriage is purely a love-match entered with mutual consent; I haven’t been able to identify this concept in the Brahmanical text ([snp2.7:9]).

The central value of the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta, the one whose loss precipitated the fall of the brahmins, was harmlessness ([snp2.7:10.3]: avihiṁsa). And harmlessness is constantly listed as a central virtue in the Baudhāyanadharmasūtra. The Self is purified by harmlessness to living creatures as the mind is purifed by truth (Baudh ahiṃsayā ca bhūtātmā manaḥ satyena śudhyati). The brahmin has vows of harmlessness, truth, not stealing, sexual restraint, and generosity (Baudh “Austerity” (tapas) is defined as beginning with harmlessness (Baudh 3.10.13). An ascetic forest dweller is urged to not harm even gadfiles or gnats (Baudh 3.3.19: na druhyed daṃśa.maśakān himavāṃs tāpaso bhavet).

If one reads the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta with the commentary, however, there are a couple of details that are a little puzzling, as they appear to endorse the caste doctrine. If this was the case, it would suggest that the text had been rather carelessly put together from Brahmanical sources, in contrast to the careful selection of details we have seen above. According to the commentary, the ancient brahmins are praised for only marrying within their caste ([snp2.7:8.1]), and a cause of their decline was the rejection of the doctrine of caste ([snp2.7:33.4]). Bhikkhu Bodhi, whose translations for the most part stays close to the commentary, remarks in his summary of this sutta that “There seems to be here an incongruity between this line of the text and the view expressed elsewhere that caste distinctions are purely conventional.” However a closer reading shows that neither of these phrases require reading in this sense.

[snp2.7:8.1] says Na brāhmaṇā aññamagamuṁ, literally “brahmins did not go (for sex) to another”. Compare Baudh, which says there are certain women who are “not to be approached” (agamyā-gamanaṁ). This includes women who are to be shunned (apapātrāṁ, “those who eat from separate bowls”). This is a stronger term than merely “of a different caste”, and refers to those who have committed a transgression serious enough for them to be set apart. Indeed, the Baudhāyanadharmasūtra praises a brahmin who honors all four castes with offerings of food in his home (Baudh Similar is the patitā, a woman who has “fallen” from caste. Obviously notions of caste are involved here, but it is not as simple as saying that a brahmin can never have sex outside of caste; the text is more specific and restricted. Compare what it says about having children, where the requirement to remain within one’s own caste is clear and emphatic (Baudh prajām utpādayed yuktaḥ sve sve varṇe).

But caste is not the only criterion. The passage also forbids a brahmin from relations with female friend of a teacher. Interestingly, the text refers without comment to both male and female teachers (gurvī). Thus the basic idea is about setting boundaries around appropriate relations. The Buddhist text speaks of the same idea, but pointedly does not frame it in terms of caste.

And as to the second problematic passage, jātivāda in the Suttas doesn’t quite mean “doctrine of caste”. Rather, it refers to one’s own ancestral lineage. So it doesn’t mean that they became corrupt because they rejected the doctrine of caste; rather, it is because they neglected their ancestral heritage. This reinforces the central message of the Sutta, and it doesn’t require an odd apparent endorsement of caste.

In sum, there seems no doubt that the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta is drawing upon genuine Brahmancial traditions, which have much in common with the Baudhāyanadharmasūtra. The Baudhāyanadharmasūtra itself, of course, does not claim to be a fresh invention, but to draw on the ancient traditions of, in order, the Vedas, the ancillary literature, and the traditions of disciples (Baudh–4). Thus both texts position themselves as descriptions of the noble practices of the brahmins of old. Law books of any kind don’t depict what people actually do, but what the law-makers think they should do. The Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta carefully selects details that accord with the story it wants to tell, rather than presenting the traditions in whole. But it does not merely create an idealized brahmin by projecting the ideal of a mendicant into the past, for it includes many details that do not apply to bhikkhus, such as colored robes and family life.

Now, at some point these ancient paragons of Brahmanical virtue arranged for harmless sacrifices. The Brahmanical tradition includes many sacrifices that do not involve killing, such as the agnihotra, where ghee is offered to the fire. This tradition harks back to ancient Indo-Aryan rites, and related rituals are maintained among inheritors of the ancient Indo-Aryan religions from Iran to Lithuania. It may well stem from much earlier, and be related to the taming of fire itself. So there is definietly support for the idea that ancient Brahmins practiced harmless rites.

This doesn’t mean, however, that they did not also practice the harmful rituals of animal sacrifice. Such practices also hark from human antiquity, and are deeply embedded in Vedic beliefs and texts. The Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta, however, insists that there was no sacrifice of cows. It speaks tenderly of the loving debt owed to cows. The ancient Indo-Aryans were pastoralists, and the cow was central to their lifestyle. The Vedas treat cows with respect, calling them aghnya “not to be killed”. We find in the Rig Veda verses of gratitude and sympathy with the cow that are not at all dissimilar to the sentiments of the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta (Rig Veda 1.164.40, Wilson translation).

Cow, may you be rich in milk through abundant fodder; that we also may be rich (in abundance); eat grass at all seasons, and, roaming (at will), drink pure water.

But this does not tell the whole picture. In the Rig Veda, Indra devours the offering of oxen (ukṣan), even fifteen or twenty, filling himself on their fat (RV 10.86.13–4). He eats bulls (vṛṣa̱bha) cooked for him (RV 10.27.2, RV 10.28.3), and buffaloes (mahiṣa) in their hundreds (RV 6.17.11, RV 5.29.7, RV 8.12.8). Agni is called “one whose food is the ox and the cow (vaśā)” (RV 8.43.11). A cow was to be slaughtered for the wedding (RV 10.85.13). That the sacrifice and eating of cows did not fall out of favor after the Vedic period is shown by sych ritual texts as the Taittirīya Brāhmaṇa, which emphasizes that the cow (go) was a sacrifice and was food (TaittB 3.9.8), the Aitareya Brāhmaṇa which prescribes the killing of a cow to feed a guest (AitB 3.4), and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, which recommends eating beef (rṣabha) to help procure a son (BrhUp 6.4.18). All this agrees with the Pali canon, where a “cow-butcher” (goghātaka) is frequently mentioned, and is a common enough livelihood to have regular apprentices (goghātakantevāsī).

That the historical picture is complex should come as no surprise: the Brahmanical tradition is compiled of a vast number of texts produced over vast extents of space and time. Regardless, the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta is emphatic that ancient Brahmanical customs required purely harmless rites. Gradually, however, the prosperity of the Brahmins caused corruption to seep into them, jealous of the finery of the kings and their ladies.

Among the glories of the kings is their planned urban environment: their homes were neatly laid out in rows ([snp2.7:18.4]). This is a stock phrase that in the Suttas describes Hell ([mn129:16.4], [mn130:16.4], [an3.36:16.2]), and elsewhere an ideal vision of a city revealed in a magic gem ([ja541:101.4])—an ambiguity that might seem strange unless you’ve lived in the suburbs. But there is one passage where this describes an actual city: the Mahājanaka Jātaka ([ja539:25.2]).

This tells of the Great Janaka, the wise and wealthy king of Mithila, capital of Videha. He returned from exile to win the hand of the princess, his cousin Sīvali, and the crown of the glorious city. Eventually, however, he saw through the danger of such pleasures and determined to go forth. He saw even his own home as being like one of the hells—thus showing that the description of hell as being like an ordered city is no accident. Donning the ochre robe and bowl and taking up a mendicant’s duty, he left, aspiring for jhāna, and in the Himalayas met a Brahmanical ascetic named Nārada of the Kassapa clan.

The point here is that Mithila is an actual city, and “Janaka” an actual king, or more accurately, a kingly lineage. A historical Janaka of Mithila was the royal sponsor of Yājñavalkya. For his skill in debate he presented Yājñavalkya with vast wealth—herds of cattle with gold-tipped horns—despite the fact that Yājñavalkya claimed to be a renunciant. Yājñavalkya is the putative author of many Brahmanical scriptures, and the corrupt brahmins are said to have compiled scriptures.

As to what scriptures were compiled or composed, they cannot be the Vedas, as the Suttas, like the brahmins themselves, regarded the Vedas as descending from an immemorial past. So they must be the post-Vedic scriptures, most likely the Brahmaṇas, which are a class of texts that, among other things, detail the sacrifices and the fees payable to brahmins therefrom. The oldest of these is the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, of which the final portion is the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, and the whole of which is attributed to Yājñavalkya. It prescribeds fees for rites such as human sacrifice (ŚpB, horse sacrifice (ŚpB, and universal sacrifice (ŚpB Fees would include women (ŚpB, gold (ŚpB, silver (ŚpB, cattle (ŚpB, oxen and furniture (ŚpB The brahmins are depicted as sharing the wealth of the sacrifice that they gain (ŚpB

It’s no great stretch to imagine that the Brāhmaṇadhammikasutta is thinking of the kingdom of Mithila, and the corrupting influence of the lavish sponsorship of brahmins under the Janakas. Of course, it is not explicitly set in that period, but rather in the legendary days of King Okkāka (Sanskrit: Ikṣvāku). He was the founder of the Solar lineage of kings, and is claimed to be a distant ancestor by the Buddha. He does not appear to be a historical figure, however, and may be a personified culture hero associated with the cultivation of sugar-cane (ikṣuḥ).

Eventually, the corruption reached such an extent that the brahmins demanded the ultimate sin: the slaughter of cows for sacrifice. At that, all the gods cried out with one voice: “this is a crime against nature!” (adhammo). The intervention of the gods against the sacrifice is a common theme in religious evolution. Sacrifice lurks in the past, and a tale is told of how god intervenes to reduce or eliminate the harm: think of the gods led by Zeus revolted at being served human flesh by Tantalus, or how Jehovah stopped Abraham from killing his son Isaac, accepting a ram instead. In the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa, an anonymous voice intervenes to advise against human sacrifice (ŚpB

Once the endorsement of the gods was severed due to this unnatural violence, humanity became sickly and divided, the social order fell into decay, and we ended up with the troubled world of today.


I’m not Indologist, just along the road of my quest for nibbana, I encountered some knowledge on brāhman(Brāhmaṇa) which helped me immensely. I may be able to share some of them but also worried they are amateur, and a little bizarre to some people. I hope in the future I can organize more time to relate to some Sanskrit written source, but for now it is in raw form. Hope it can be some kind of background knowledge to help bhante’s research in this direction.

the bizarre part is the brāhman gods are one of the two clans of super beings that greatly influenced human evolution. They not only taught us agriculture, animal husbandry and so on, but also left bloodline with specially genetic engineered humans. The Chinese wedding ceremony (which is named as “pay respect to heaven and earth gods”), is for the new couple firstly to bow to heaven and earth gods, which the heaven gods are the brāhman gods, secondly bow to parents, and then bow to each other. Early brāhman humans due their divinity in the blood have longevity of at least hundreds of years, as what described in the Christian Bible. The 48 years of study time was originally referring to their lifes. The knowledge of brahmacariya, brahmavihara and more were all passed down from those early ancestors when they lived with those brāhman gods, to help us transcend our human state of existence. They were very pure and gentle people in the beginning but when the brāhman gods left planet earth and their bloodline got thinner and thinner, things slowly changed.

Yes and later they got corrupted and started serving their own selfish goals of desires I guess. And result is today’s mixed brahmanism which is focused on wellbeing of only higher castes. I think! :thinking: