Bryan Levman’s Pāli and Buddhism: a review

I’ve just read Bryan Levman’s Pāli and Buddhism, and here are some thoughts.

First up, let me say it’s great to see serious work done on the roots of Pali and Buddhist culture, and especially to see the emphasis on the connection with local traditions. I learned a lot from the discussions of specific cases. Underlying his approach is the assumption that the Pali texts do indeed represent a language and culture that is deeply embedded in the India of the Buddha’s day, even if filtered through language changes. And I want to acknowledge the depth and seriousness of his intent. It takes many years of focused effort to master obscure languages, and we should treasure such learning. This work will have a lasting impact as more fashionable academic ephemera rise and fall.

A key theory is that Pali descends from an earlier, unattested koine. This is not a new idea, but Levman’s discussion helped me understand the specific process better. The idea is not just that there was a common language that was not location-specific, but rather that the common language simplified phonetic forms, as a kind of “lossy compression”, so that when the more articulated forms such as Pali were reconstituted there is some ambiguity and hence loss of meaning. Of course most cases are clear, but equally some cases are not.

An example is the word veṭha, literally a “twist”, in the compound veṭhamissa. There are a range of variants, including veṭha, veḍha, vedha, vekha, vegha. The common phonemes are veha which Levman postulates as the koine form, which in another context is attested in an old Pali manuscript. Now of course it is normal to find spelling variants in old texts. But in such cases the amount of variants and the nature of the changes are hard to explain through normal phonetic or scribal changes. Levman argues that the simplest explanation is that the koine form was veha, and different editors or scribes articulated it as best they could, resulting in a somewhat random profusion of forms.

This theory seems reasonable in the cases Levman cites, although I’m not sure to what extent we can infer from a few such cases to a wholesale imputation of an unattested language and translation process. For what it’s worth, I’m no linguist, and have no particular theory on the origins of Pali.

Incidentally, the Sanskrit veṣṭa ultimately means “twist”, while missa can have the sense “plait” (Bu Vb Ss 2:2.1.21), so the compound veṭhamissa at DN 16:2.25.11 and Thag 2.12:1.1 refers to a binding material that is a “twisted plait”, i.e. a “rope”. There is no need to accept Levman’s previously-suggested emendation of missaka to nissaya, as I formerly did in my translation.

Levman overstates his case when he says:

It has long been assumed that the roots of Buddhism lay in the Indo-Aryan culture. Now that scholars are beginning to see the extensive influence of the local culture on the founding ideas of the religion, and understand the significant lexemic, specialist content in the teachings, which reflect pre-Buddhist, native belief systems, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate an old paradigm and shift it to a more inclusive model.” (132)

Up to this point in his book he has discussed place names, botanical names, funeral customs, the well-known contrast between the autocratic kingdoms and the republics, one or two places where the Buddha encounters Jaṭilas (dreadlocked ascetics), the robes and kaṭhina, the shrines to yakkhas (native spirits), various sacred trees, and so on. This is all fascinating, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with the “founding ideas of the religion”.

He says that past scholars ignored local influences. Now of course in an understudied field like ours there are always omissions and new contributions are welcome. But let’s take just one example, the classic Rhys Davids Buddhist India of 1911. His first chapter begins by contrasting the local republican form of government with the monarchies, and his second chapter describes how the Sakyans employed such a republican system. Chapter 4 speaks of how social customs were “prevalent in widely different forms among the different tribes—Aryan, Dravidian, Kolarian, and others—which made up the mixed population. We have unfortunately only Aryan records.” We’ve always been well aware that it was a mixed culture, and also aware that our knowledge is shaped by the inevitable facts of its transmission through Aryan culture and language.

The influence of the republics on Sangha organization is of course significant. What Levman does is to flesh out the general principles established in the opening to the Mahāparinibbānasutta, and exemplified throughout the Vinaya, and show further details of the influence of local cultures and customs. This gives more detail and color to our understanding, but it does not affect the general picture, which is well understood.

The argument of a special relation between early Buddhism and Dravidian and Munda speakers is undercut by the fact that loan words into Indo-European began appearing in the Rig Veda, especially its later stages, and thus had been ongoing for half a millennium before the Buddha appeared. This influence on Pali was ongoing, especially given the close connection for over two thousand years between the speakers of the Indo-European Sinhalese language and the Dravidian-speaking Tamils.

What Levman does not point out is that the vast majority of technical terms in Buddhist doctrine can be traced to Brahmanical texts. Most of the doctrinal vocabulary is Indo-European. And of course the Brahmans had been adopting local words for centuries, so even if some of these words are ultimately traced to Munda or Dravidian roots, it doesn’t matter for Buddhist history, as long as they can be encountered in Brahmanical texts. As I have noted in a series of essays on this site, with many more examples in my notes, the connection between Buddhist and Brahmanical texts is undeniable. Buddhist terminology responds to ideas of both Brahman (eg. anattā) and śramaṇa movements (eg. sakkāya), as well as making original contributions (eg. yoniso manasikāra).

While I’m not unconvinced of the koine theory, Levman’s proposal that the Sakyans spoke Dravidian seems to have no logical force. There are plenty of words associated with the Sakyans that have a Dravidian or Munda root, but that is true of all the texts of the period. We know that at some point the peoples of the area spoke non-Indo European languages, we know that at some point they adopted Indo-European, and we also know that the process, like all language change, was gradual, incomplete, and went both ways. There’s no evidence that the Buddha’s family spoke anything other than a Indo-European language with a bunch of loan words.

Moreover, if it were the case that the Sakyans spoke Dravidian, this would lead to what for Levman would be a rather unpalatable consequence. Given that Buddhist doctrines are formulated almost entirely in Indo-European, if the Buddha grew up speaking Dravidian, then we can only assume that he strenuously rejected the language and culture of his birth, adopting the Brahmanized culture under which he studied as an adult as a far more sophisticated and appropriate means of expressing his own teachings. Obviously this is unlikely, and we can continue to assume that the Buddha grew up speaking a form of Indo-European.

Apart from these major theories, there are a number of mistakes or missing context that a close reader might want to be aware of.

Levman argues that DN 14 is a late sutta, partly because of the inclusion of the Marks of a Great Man, while in the next sentence saying,“The Sutta-Nipāta is recognized by scholars as one of the earliest of Buddhist suttas.” (130). The Sutta-Nipāta is, for a start, not a sutta but a collection of suttas. And it includes suttas both early and late, and in fact covers the same period of compilation as the rest of the canon. Thus Snp 5.1 includes a clear reference to the Marks of a Great Man. The error of claiming the Sutta-Nipāta is early is repeated several times.

Levman repeats the canard that Buddhaghosa was a brahmin (128), which is based solely on a legendary account many centuries after his life, and contradicted by the many lapses of understanding of Sanskrit and Brahmanical concepts in the commentaries. He further presses the idea that as a brahmin, he would have imposed Brahmanism on Buddhism. This is just prejudice. Converts convert for a reason, usually because they dislike their old religion. As a convert from Christianity via atheism myself, I find that it helps me to see ways that modern Buddhists adopt Christian ideas into Buddhism, for example homophobia, and to effectively counter such influences.

Similarly, he alludes to the increasing influence of Brahmanism on the “pan-Indian” sphere. But Sinhalese don’t see themselves as “Indian”, and they proudly defend themselves against influence from “Hinduism”. Of course influence happens. My point is that for every point of influence there is also a reaction to that influence. You can’t generalize from the idea of growing Hindu influence to specific changes in Sinhalese Buddhism, since this is just as likely to provoke a more assertive and distinctively Buddhist identity.

Sometimes he misses connections which, when restored, establish the exact opposite conclusion. For example, Levman refers to yakkha worship, noting the extensive use of apparently non-Indo-European names for what I have translated as “native spirits”. He notes that in one place the Buddha refers to himself as a yakkha (Snp 3.4:30.5). But he doesn’t notice that the phrase here, “purity of the spirit”, recurs at Snp 4.11:15.2. There it emerges from a discussion of the Indo-European term saññā—a key crux in Yājñavalkya’s teaching—in the context of absorption meditation. The term also appears in a similar sense at AN 10.29:20.2, where the best of those who advocate the “ultimate purity of the spirit” are said to be those who teach the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, by which the Buddha is referring to the Brahmanical teacher Uddaka Rāmaputta (MN 26:16.13). The yakkha is indeed identified with the ultimate Brahman, i.e. the cosmic self, at Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 5.4.1 and Kena Upaniṣad 4.1. Thus while it is true that the yakkha cult is primarily one of local spirit worship, when the Buddha refers to himself as a yakkha, he is specifically drawing on the Upaniṣadic tradition.

The discussion of kasiṇa is undermined by reading the commentarial notion of a meditation disk into the suttas, and then arguing that the sense “entirety” is late. But the basic sutta phrase, which he omits, says “the meditation on universal earth above, below, across, undivided and limitless”, clearly establishing the sense “universal, entirety”, while the sense “disk” doesn’t appear for many centuries.

Likewise, he makes the unwarranted assumption that the passage in DN 11 on consciousness is a description of Nibbana, not noting that this is only stated in the commentary. As Ven Suñño and myself have shown at length, it is in fact a reference to the formless attainments.

The discussion of jaṭilas (dreadlocked ascetics) is similarly unconvincing (48). The word is Dravidian, and Levman says “there is nothing in the suttas that specifically associates them with Brahmins”, while later in the same paragraph he acknowledges that the sixteen ascetics of the Parayanavagga wore dreadlocks and were Brahmins. He also quotes Ud 1.9 where the Buddha sees jaṭilas engaged in sacred bathing and worship of the sacred flame, both widely recognized in the suttas as core Vedic practices, and remarks that purity doesn’t come from bathing, rather, the true brahmin is founded on truth and principle. This is a case where the need to insist of the theory overdetermines the reading: their name is Dravidian, hence it must be a local practice, hence it cannot be Brahmanical. But, as Levman notes elsewhere, Brahmanism itself had already been influenced by local Indian culture for 500 years or more before the Buddha, which means that the presence of local ideas in Buddhism comes partly from Buddhist contact with non-Vedic culture, and partly as pre-mediated through Brahmanism (and also the other, even less known, spiritual movements of the śramaṇas).

Levman conflates (4) the jaṭila who visited the Sakyans on the Buddha’s birthday, Asita (“black”), with the Kaṇha (“black”) of DN 3:1.16.2, positing them as native sages opposed to Brahmanism. But DN 3 is set in mythological time and they cannot be the same person.

Rather, both are examples of what I have called the “dark hermit” archetype. See also Asita Kaṇhasiri (or Kāladevala, Snp 3.11:1.1), Asita Devala (MN 93:18.6), Kaṇha (DN 3:1.23.6), Kaṇhadīpāyana (Cp 31:1.2), and Sāma (Cp 33:1.1). These are mysterious sages, associated with the south, with dark skin, and with magical powers, who irrupt in contention with existing norms. Doubtless it is correct to associate them with native wisdom men rather than Brahmanical rishis. But by the time of the Buddha they appear in contentious relationship with orthodoxy, rather than something outside the pale. Their stories are not just of opposing religious movements, but of the bumps and sparks that happen as different movements converge. This process too started long before the Buddha, as Asita Devala is probably meant to be the legendary seer known as Asita or Devala son of Kāśyapa who composed Rig Veda 9.5–24.

In any work of such complexity and difficulty there are bound to be some mistakes or at least things that are disputable. Good scholarship such as Levman’s work should not be judged by a few mistakes, but by the positive and meaningful contribution that it makes. And in that regard, it’s a fascinating and rewarding glimpse into the time of the Buddha, and an empathetic and informed inquiry into the process of change that characterizes the Buddhist tradition as it does all conditioned things.


Oh and BTW, thanks to @anon63415341 for donating the book! :pray:


Just on this @sujato are you aware of any arguments why we should consider the marks of a great man late, other than its inherent “mythalogical” charecter?

Why would we not think it is simply another “early” (perhaps even during gotomas lifetime) piece of “spiritual technology” like the brhama viharas, that the early Buddhists took over and reused? (with perhaps, as in other cases, a “buddhist” reinterpretation of the symbolism)

Thanks, look forward to reading thebrest of your post (and the last one!)

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A Koine would presumably have to be ubiquitous. Levman’s Koine is only ubiquitous in its absence (as far as my grasp of facts go).

Almost every Pali Indo-Aryan word (barring the occasional loanwords from outside Indo-Aryan) has a sanskrit (Vedic or classical) i.e. Old-Indo-Aryan cognate, and the phonetic and grammatical changes therefrom that lead to canonical Pali are in general well documented. The same linguistic and non-linguistic (orthographic) processes that gave rise to standard Pali vocabulary also are broadly applicable for the orthographically attested variant word forms found in early-Jain, Ashokan etc texts. They all eventually go back to Old-Indo-Aryan word-forms directly and transparently. So a Middle-Indic Koine has no necessity to exist, and there is no evidence that it did exist.

Also it is worth mentioning that Pali and the other so-called early forms of Middle-Indic (Gandhari, Ashokan, Ardha-Magadhi) did not have any native names or regional distinctions or ethnic communities between the 4th and 2nd century BCE - thus they were not true vernaculars (in the phonetic form that they are found attested in).

From the Pali canon, it would appear that everyone across northern-India in the 4th century BCE spoke the same language and understood each other perfectly well. In the Ashokan inscriptions spread across the subcontinent, the same thing applies to the language, the language and vocabulary is verbatim the same all over in multiple copies of each edict. The language only changes in the Ashokan edicts in Afghanistan and other areas close to Afghanistan (to Greek and Aramaic). This again means the whole of northern and central India proper was predominantly speaking one language. In the early ardhamagadhi texts, the picture is the same. This picture (of a single Indo-Aryan language being spoken across northern India) is therefore a consistent one.

The early Sanskrit texts coeval to the Buddha and immediately thereafter (which are hundreds of times more numerous than all kinds of middle-Indic) actually claim that Sanskrit is the native language of Indo-Aryan India (i.e. excluding the Dravidian-speaking south) i.e. apart from also not being discordant with the other evidence from the Pali, Ashokan, Ardhamagadhi sources - they actually claim that people spoke Sanskrit (not exactly standard Paninian sanskrit but dialects close to it - of which the Paninian register was adopted as the standard). They only distinguish the Chandas (early Vedic) and the Bhāṣā (late Vedic, which includes classical Sanskrit) as being languages. After Sanskrit, we don’t see any mention of newer vernaculars until after the start of the Common Era.

Therefore, in the absence of evidence of any middle-Indic Koine, the 4th century BCE Indo-Aryan Koine is classical sanskrit itself, as I have already said here as well.

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I’ve seen Levman’s ideas of the koine, and there’s a scholar who argued against it once or twice (Stefan Karpik).

Personally, I’m not convinced of either concretely, and Karpik’s article is a bit amateur linguistics from what I recall, but Levman’s hypothesis is to me less reasonable. As Karpik points out, and as @sujato alludes to some here, what Levman proposes about the manuscripts and phonetic variants is really not necessary and evidence to Pāli forms being valid originals is abundant. @srkris mentions this above.

As far as Sanskrit being the lingua franca, we certainly don’t see this in the Ashokan edicts. It’s Middle Indo-Aryan, in a register roughly mutually intelligible with ‘Pāli.’ Especially if we bear in mind that Pāli is simply a term for the language preserved in the manuscripts which has undergone a certain degree of orthographic and phonetic standardization and register shifting as would naturally occur if the texts moved South over centuries.

From what I have read, you are unique in holding this opinion. Do you have any academic literature that presents this view? Some Vedic scholars and Indologists believe the Middle Indo Aryan languages were being spoken in the early Vedic period, let alone the period of the Buddha. Middle Indo-Aryan registers also have features that show they are not descendants of the Sanskrit forms we know of and have documented, but often variant dialects and more archaic forms that point to them emerging, again, before the time of the Buddha.

I would like to read up in more detail on this, though, and am curious to know of any peer reviewed resources.

Here is a paper on the proposed koine. Levman explains his theory of an intervocalic glide in there.

I don’t agree with some of Stefan Karpik’s claims either that there was some kind of Oral-Transmission of EBTs in the first 3-4 centuries of Buddhism before they were finally written down. There is (in my knowledge of the facts) no evidence for any kind of early Oral-Transmission of the first 4 Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka (in any language - Pali, Gandhari, or Sanskrit). Therefore the vast majority or entirety of the prose EBTs (excluding perhaps the verse suttas of the Atthakavagga, Parayanavagga etc whose oral-transmission is less clear) were in writing from the very beginning.

The idea that the Sakyas spoke Dravidian natively is similar to the Oral-Transmission hypotheses - it is entirely unsubstantiated and the facts speak against it. As a native speaker of Tamil (a Dravidian language with a textual tradition as old as that of Pali), I find the idea quite bizarre.

In fact, most Old-Tamil texts (written texts from BCE) speak of only one “வடமொழி” (literally meaning “Northern language” in Tamil), and that word refers to Sanskrit. The early Tamils to the best of my knowledge didn’t recognize the existence of (or name/identify) any other languages in Northern India in BCE. In early-Tamil texts, the association of Northern & Central India with Sanskrit speaking Indo-Aryans is firmly established - and there are thousands and thousands of Indo-Aryan loanwords still in use in daily speech from Sanskrit in all Dravidian languages (and in Dravidian literature from the late Mauryan era onwards). It is much harder to prove that the majority of Indo-Aryan loanwords in Tamil originate from Pali or a language similar to Pali - because the phonetic forms in which they are attested in Tamil do not betray such an ancestry.

Even Canonical Pali has no linguistic recognition in Tamil literature despite the fact that Pali has spent most of its existence in Tamil speaking areas. The conclusion that appears to me inescapable is that the early Tamils who studied Pali and practiced early-Buddhism must have thought of Pali as being a written-register of Sanskrit.

Do the scholars you follow know or read early-Dravidian texts; or consider/know all these stuff? I doubt it. The number of Pali and Sanskrit scholars who are also competent in Dravidian is probably very low.

Not really. Have you tried reading them yourself, or is that hearsay?

Here is Ashoka’s Rock Edict 1 from Girnar -

  • the word forms that display uniquely Sanskritic phonetic features i.e. which cannot be phonetically Middle-Indo-Aryan, are in bold
  • the ones not in bold also contain Sanskritic words but they are not unique to Sanskrit - such as rājā, na, jīvam, samājo, bahukam, sādhu, etc
  • the rest of the words are not all necessarily identical in form to Pali either:

The edict

(A) iy[aṃ] dhaṃma-lipī Devānaṃpriyena Priyadasinā rāña lekh[ā]pitā
(B) [i]dha na kiṃci jīvaṃ ārabhitpā prajūhitavyaṃ
(C) na ca samājo katavyo
(D) bahukaṃ hi dosaṃ samājamhi pasati Devānaṃpriyo Priyadasi rājā
(E) asti pi tu ekacā samājā sādhu-matā Devānaṃpriyasa Priyadasino rāño
(F) pura mahānas[amhi] Devānaṃpriyasa Priy[a]dasino rāño anudivasaṃ bahūni prāṇa-sata-sahasrāni ārabhisu sūpāthāya
(G) se aja yadā ayaṃ dha[ṃ]ma-lip[ī] likhitā tī eva prāṇā ārabhare sūpāthāya dvo morā eko mago so pi mago na dhruvo
(H) ete pi trī prāṇā pachā na ārabhisare

The above is from the Girnar edicts, which have been suggested by several Pali scholars to be linguistically the closest to Canonical Pali. Even here (leaving alone the other locations), the evidence does not suit the theory (of Ashoka writing in only middle-Indo-Aryan).

How did so many words that display uniquely Old-Indo-Aryan forms (leaving alone other words that are common phonetically to both Sanskrit and Middle-Indo-Aryan) get in each line of Aśoka’s edicts? There are hundreds of such uniquely Sanskritic word forms if we study the entirety of the Ashokan textual corpus. Such uniquely Sanskritic word-forms are even more abundant in his Gandhari edicts. How can we brush these under the carpet and claim that Ashokan edicts are in Middle-Indo-Aryan across the board?

Even Sanskrit is mutually intelligible with Pali to pretty much the same extent as the Gandhari & Ashokan registers. Most people who know Classical Sanskrit well enough can comprehend Pali (and vice-versa). Most Pali words exist in either the exact same form or with slightly modified spellings in Sanskrit - so I don’t see comprehensibility as a relevant factor.

Pali is not alone in not having a name or an established linguistic identity before the common era. No other middle-Indo-Aryan language/dialect/register had such an established linguistic identity. None of the others too (Ardhamagadhi, Gandhari, Ashokan, etc) were recognized as vernaculars, or as dialects, or as languages by any name whatsoever - in the early-Jain sources, or in the early-Buddhist sources, or in the Ashokan edicts, or in early-Sanskrit texts. The idea that they were spoken languages thus has no underlying evidence. They are linguistic registers, sure, and they have texts written in them, but the existence of written texts does not prove that the spoken language was phonetically identical to how it is written in the texts.

Those were the first few centuries of writing en-masse in India - and it is not hard to imagine that the spoken language was simplified (using varying conventions) in order to write them conveniently/quickly. So some of the early Buddhists simplified it in a way that approximates what came to be called Pali later, while the early Jains simplified it in a way that came to be called Ardhamagadhi. Both of them were likely following the linguistic conventions and precedents set by the early-Mauryan (Ashokan etc) scribes - which is why they have common linguistic features. For the early-Buddhists, the ability to quickly copy mountains of canonical manuscripts over and over was of paramount importance in their quest to spread Buddhism all over, so they were driven by necessity to use the artifice of the phonetically and grammatically simplified language first introduced in early-Mauryan India for writing Brahmi texts on stone.

I don’t know of anyone else - and you are right, it is I myself who claims it - it’s my own original claim. Perhaps someone else has said it before, I’ll mention it if and when I come to know of it.

However the native texts from BCE are quite clear and forthright about it, and I find they make sense. I don’t see why the eye-witness accounts should not be trusted. The Sanskrit grammarian Patañjali, writing around 150 BCE mentions an excuse that people of his time offered as they refused to spend time learning Sanskrit grammar “vedān no vaidikāḥ śabdāḥ siddhā lokācca laukikāḥ, anarthakam vyākaraṇam” (“From studying the Vedas, we comprehend the Vedic language, and from speaking everyday with everyone, we know the classical sanskrit - hence studying grammar is useless either to know the Vedic or the classical Sanskrit”). So one century after Ashoka, people commonly felt studying a grammar to know their native day-to-day spoken Sanskrit was an overkill. The same source gives numerous such anecdotes of everyday Spoken sanskrit across the social landscape. So Sanskrit was spoken natively by all of Indo-Aryan India, not just by Brahmins, but they (the Brahmins) were certainly its most conservative exemplars.

Some questions are in order:

  • What are those influences, and who has proved that they are not traceable to any other currently known language?
  • Who says so, and how pervasive are such words/influences in Pali?
  • Are those features unique to Pali?
  • Did those features survive in later dialects?
  • If not where did they go?
  • Where are such variant dialects found attested before Buddhism?

I have read such claims and I find them greatly exaggerated. Those words that are cited as evolved from variant pre-Pali dialects are less than 1% of the Pali vocabulary - and they may very well be Iranic (Old-Persian / Median / Avestan / Scythian) loanwords - if at all they are of Indo-European origin. I dont even think such words exist in the later Pali texts or commentaries. So they are very likely Iranic loanwords from a time when the Achaemenid Empire ruled parts of North-Western India (which I believe was the homeland of Canonical Pali & Gandhari) from Persia. The period of Achaemenid suzerainty was when the Buddha lived and died.

They vast majority of Pali word forms are phonetically simplified forms of classical sanskrit words and are therefore capable of being etymologized from classical or vedic sanskrit. Can any scholar prove that this is not so?

A very enjoyable read. Thank you Bhante.

I have a contention, not with any of the core of the essay, but just with this comment.

Why do you think Christianity is homophonic?

Judaism would certainly qualify as homophonic (let he who lays with another man be stoned).

I can’t recall any part of the New Testament which endorses an “anti-homosexual” attitude.

Whereas, in contrast, the Buddha seems to state in suttas that heterosexuality is the norm (“I do not see a single form; smell; taste; touch; sound which occupies a man’s mind as (those) of a woman).
AN 1.1

I find the above sutta in opposition to the sexual and emotional preferences of, let’s say, a gay man. There’s many ways to read into the sutta and tip toe over the message. We can argue “A gay man can be mostly preoccupied with the smells; sounds; etc. of a woman and still prefer those of a man to those of a woman” - and so forth.

But the same sutta says the converse of a woman. And I think the most obvious interpretation of the meaning here is that of a heteronormative stance.

Not that homophobia is being endorsed in the above sutta. But again, I take exception to the assertion that Christianity is fundamentally heteronormative with an emphasis on homophobia. And as such, it’s subsumed by Buddhism which isn’t?

Romans 1:26-27 is quite well-known and discussed. Of course there are hundreds of exegetes discussing it from various angles.

Also see 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:9-10.

These are in the Pauline epistles; Romans and 1 Corinthians are considered ‘undisputed’ in terms of authorial authenticity generally speaking.

More importantly, keep in mind that “Christianity” is not “the statements found in the New Testament.” That has never been the case nor could it be. So if someone were to say “Jesus was homophobic,” that’s a different issue. But ‘Christianity’ as a series of movements and ideas across space-time certainly had a history of homophobia, and the Hebrew Bible which condemns it is considered canonical in the Christian bible, not even turning to Christian doctrine as a whole.

I’m not defending one particular side over another, just calling this to attention. When we discuss ‘Buddhism’ or ‘Christianity,’ we should be clear what exactly we mean by those terms in what context.

mettā :slight_smile:

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I appreciate the post. And I think this is where I made my mistake …

I could clarify my position by saying there is little evidence of homophobia in the gospels, but that would, as you point out, not represent the basis of organized Christianity, and would be something of a straw man.

So, thank you. I stand corrected. And my apologies to Bhante.


Just to confirm, I agree that homophobia is marginal in the Bible, but I was speaking of Christianity more generally, which in many modern incarnations has a weird obsession with promoting homophobia throughout the world.

There are, basically it appears in marginal contexts. But I would posit that such arguments are mostly prompted by a felt need to explain away a bit of unpalatable mythology. For myself, I like mythology and I’m glad the Buddha wasn’t normal all the time!


I am definitely only an amateur and not terribly well-read, but this strikes me as a fairly remarkable claim that challenges literally everything I know about the composition of the EBTs. Unless something has changed radically in the last few years, I was under the impression that the scholarly consensus was that they were orally transmitted and not written until around the 1st century CE. I would love to have more information on this, if you can point me to further reading.


Just to address this one point — this is completely unfounded. And for others reading — as far as you’ve said and I’m aware — this is your unique opinion which all Indologists or scholars of Buddhism disagree with to my knowledge. Even among skeptics of the historicity of the Buddha, I have yet to encounter someone who suspects something else, which is essentially just conspiracy theory.

If anything written is rendered invalid, what kind of evidence for oral transmission do you want — a tape recording from 300 BCE?

The entirety of the early texts assume and frequently mention explicitly an oral culture of textual transmission. This is supported by the Vinaya narratives and commentarial tradition, and by the very make up of the texts themselves which is obviously and unambiguously one of an oral culture. Written transcriptions and records frequently abbreviate oral repetitions and the texts are replete with recitation remarks and cues for keeping track of content and introducing topics.

If you want evidence for this, look at any literature at all discussing these texts or their transmission and the references therein. Or, just examine the composition of the texts themselves.


Thanks, Venerable, that was what I thought.


Why then do so many chronicles and commentaries report that this is in fact what happened? What would anyone want to make such a thing up?

Piṭakattayapāḷiñca, tassa aṭṭhakathampi ca;
Mukhapāṭhena ānesuṃ, pubbe bhikkhū mahāmati.

Hāniṃ disvāna sattānaṃ, tadā bhikkhū samāgatā;
Ciraṭṭhitatthaṃ dhammassa, potthakesu likhāpayuṃ.
(Mahāvaṃsa XXXIII)

It’s 2 lines in a single narrative account (not “so many chronicles and commentaries”) – which was written de-novo in circa the 5th century by one monk (not a committee of historians or scholars who were recording a consensual traditional account).

In the beginning it says the Śakyamuni is the 7th tathāgata (and names the mythological tathāgatas before him), and also says that Shakyamuni visited Sri Lanka three times. Since it says so, those are all no doubt historical truths, right? Not to me.

The translation of those two verses you’ve posted is partly erroneous - the verses don’t say that people were falling away from religion, and in any case people falling away from religion has nothing to do with bhikkhus continuing an oral transmission.

It literally says that the 3 pitakas and the atthakathas thereon were brought as oral texts by bhikkhus of great intellect and thereafter, perceiving that people were getting diminished (in mental calibre, thus no longer being capable of the nearly superhuman memorizing feats of yore), and with the intention that the dharma may survive for a long time - caused them to be written down in books.

So the reason adduced for writing them down was because the earlier bhikkhus who came from India bearing the 3 pitakas along with their atthakathas (all orally) were therefore of superior mental calibre - whereas after getting to Lanka and living there for a few centuries, the mental capacity of their successors diminished such an extent to a point where writing it all down was the only way to preserve the dhamma. Believable? Maybe for you. I dont believe that the Indian bhikkhus in general were any way more capable at memorizing than their Sri Lankan successors.

Presumably then everywhere (all across India) too the same mass-decline in mental capacities of Buddhist bhikkhus (of all early-Buddhist sects) happened, and everyone everywhere must have simultaneously come to the same conclusion that oral transmission would have to be abandoned, and transferred their oral canons and commentaries to written books. That is how it probably happened historically, right? Not to my knowledge.

Now it also says the Bhikkhus who came over to Sri Lanka for the first time carried not just the 3 pitakas but also their atthakathas orally to Sri Lanka. What language were these 3rd century BCE atthakathas on the 3 Pali pitakas composed in? Pali itself perhaps? So what happened to those 3rd century BCE atthakathas after they were written down? Vanished without further mention? Vanished also in India?

A commentarial tradition is almost always a written tradition (even for oral texts). Also commentaries are normally composed only when the source-texts become partly or wholly incomprehensible, not when the source text is itself brand new. This talk of the existence of oral commentaries in the 3rd century BCE really cements the idea that the author of the Mahavamsa was not even trying to sound credible.

Who wrote the so-called early Sinhala atthakathas thereafter and how did they too magically disapper before Buddhaghosa et al rewrote yet another set of atthakathas again in Pali?

The Niddesa (Maha & Culla) on parts of the Sutta Nipata is a relatively early commentary (perhaps datable to the beginning of the common era). It has been included as part of the canon and it very likely was composed in India, not in Sri Lanka. As I said, commentaries are almost always written documents, and the fact that the Niddesa was added to the canon indicates that the canon wasn’t considered closed until it was written and included therein. So an open canon still accepting written Pali texts to be included in it was not likely an oral (or even complete) canon to begin with.

An oral canon cannot be translated or recast into another language orally. Even if it could be recast orally, it cannot simultaneously be memorized orally without any change to the original translation. If it could not be memorized without change it wouldnt be Buddhavacana any longer. This means no translations or linguistic recasts could have been made of the original canon (orally). But we know that parallel EBTs existed at least in Gandhari and Sanskrit from BCE times - and their mere existence indicates of there being an extensive network of written manuscripts in Pali, Gandhari and Sanskrit that were being edited and collated for centuries before the common era. These things cannot happen orally.

The centre of gravity for the Pali tradition was India until well into the common era - and it was only after the 7th or 8th century CE that it shifted to Sri Lanka for good. That being the case, when it was first put into writing in Sri Lanka has no bearing on the Pali Buddhist tradition as a whole as the home of Pali (India) was still its center of gravity for nearly a thousand years since the Buddha’s demise. It is more likely that the Sri Lankan Pali tradition in the 1st century BCE had no concerns about the texts disappearing anytime soon - as the centre of gravity of Pali tradtion was in India and Sri Lankan monks still looked up to (and were in constant contact with) their Indian sources for help and religious/scholarly sustenance of the Pali tradition. There is no evidence that Sri Lankan monks in the 1st century BCE functioned independently or could decide independently what to put into writing and what to retain orally.

The word piṭaka is related to the words peṭaka, peṭikā etc and means a literal physical box or container to store things. In the case of the buddhist canon, they were originally very likely boxes in which manuscripts were filed in order, stored and carried around.

The word Piṭaka is elsewhere in coeval Mauryan era (circa 3rd century BCE) texts such as the Arthaśāstra, Rāmāyaṇa & Mahābhārata, used only in the sense of a physical box. The Arthaśāstra, for example says about implements used normally in in a storehouse:
“tulāmānabhāṇḍaṃ rocanīdṛṣanmusalolūkhalakuṭṭakarocakayantrapattrakaśūrpacālanikākaṇḍolīpiṭakasaṃmārjanyaścopakaraṇāni”

tulā-māna-bhāṇḍaṃ = implements to weigh and measure
rocanī-dṛṣad = grinding mill stones
musala-ulūkhala = mortars and pestles
kuṭṭaka-rocaka-yantra = machines for pounding and grinding
pattraka = sheets
śūrpa = winnowing baskets
cālanikā = sieves or strainers
kaṇḍolī = bamboo/cane baskets (used for grains)
piṭaka = boxes
saṃmārjanī = brooms
ca upakaraṇāni = (are the) implements used.

Recitation of suttas (as part of a group or as an individual) would have meant reading them out from such manuscripts (not from memory). There is no unambiguous proof (or even claim mentioned anywhere) that early-Buddhists were reciting large parts of the canon from memory.

Do you see all these problems that I see in just these 2 verses? Do you see why I think they aren’t actually anything to do with history but simply a made up story?

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That is not correct - they are prominent personalities of Brahmanism from the late-Vedic era.

  • Kaṇhadīpāyana is the pāli spelling of Kṛṣṇa-Dvaipāyana, to whom the authorship of the Mahābhārata is attributed.

  • Asita-Devala is also a well known sage and he figures in the Mahabharata and a few other texts of the early Buddhist era, and to him the authorship of Devala-smṛti (a dharmaśāstra text like the Manusmṛti) is attributed.

  • The story of Kaṇha (Skt. Kṛṣṇa) in DN3 is a cooked up story intended to justify the patronymic Kaṇhāyana. There is no gotra called Kaṇhāyana, Ambaṭṭha was rather from the lineage of Kāṇva (therefore he was a Kāṇvāyana).

The comments “These are mysterious sages, associated with the south, with dark skin, and with magical powers, who irrupt in contention with existing norms. Doubtless it is correct to associate them with native wisdom men rather than Brahmanical rishis” are all misconceived.

I haven’t looked much into these figures in Sanskrit traditions, so speak mostly from their roles as portrayed in Buddhism. But just please, your information and perspective is helpful, blanket dismissal is not.

He’s a character in the Mahābhārata, authorship is attributed much later so far as I can see. Do you see any connection apart from the name? I’m not familiar enough to be able to say.

Now, just quickly checking his story, he was the son of a Vedic rishi Parashara with a local fisherwoman, thus (as in DN 3) the offspring of a violation of caste rules. He had to be hidden in an island, and was named for his dark complexion—again as in DN 3, as a son of a native woman—and hiding place. Parashara then magically restored her virginity. Lucky her, I guess. Very mysterious! Anyway, she marries a king, and is associated with a complex story about royal lineages, and ultimately she gets her son Kaṇhadīpāyana to magically impregnate royal widows.

Thus his story is bound up with anxieties over bloodlines and lineage, and well suits the dark hermit archetype.

I’m not so much interested in what later traditions say about these, as that is often a lot! But as I note on MN 93,

“Asita Devala is probably meant to be the legendary seer known as Asita or Devala son of Kāśyapa who composed Rig Veda 9.5–24, although they seem to share little but the name”.

Again, are you aware of anything they share in common?

Thanks for the link. The story is, in fact, a typical “dark hermit” narrative.

When Asita met Jaigīṣavya, whose powers are deliberately presented as mysterious, he traveled to the sea (to the south), after which he evolved from Vedic ritualism to develop tapas, yoga, and renunciation as a sannyasin, all ascetic practices adopted as the late Vedic tradition fused with local practices. By ascending to the Brahma realm he shows the superiority of yoga as opposed to the soma rituals of his Vedic verses.

Any other examples you know of would be most welcome.

I just stumbled on an interesting detail, Asita’s teacher Jaigīṣavya is mentioned in the Buddhacarita. There, Udraka Ramaputra has just taught the jhanas for the attainment of the Brahmaloka, and says that the seers Jaigīṣavya, Janaka, and Vṛddha Parāśara have all done the same. The note identifies Vṛddha Parāśara with Pañcaśikha and says they are all Samkhya sages.

Another detail, Devi Bhagavata Purana says “the great Yogi Śaṅkhacūḍa obtained the Kṛṣṇa Mantra from Mahaṛṣi Jaigīṣavya”. Again Jaigīṣavya, who so far as I know has no Vedic antecedent, is association with introducing mysterious “dark” powers into the Vedic tradition, just as the Brahma mantra is introduced via Krishna in DN 3.

As opposed to the sober, journalistic history of the Mahabharata passage you just posted? Fun fact, most mythology is “cooked up stories”, including those in Sanskrit. :wink:

Do you have a source for this?

Or, and hear me out here, they are all true, and the Pali texts offer an earlier and more authentic presentation of the changes in the culture that were happening at the time, which have been smoothed away in later Brahmanical mythologizing.

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Yes, he is. So are Yājñavalkya, Śākalya (author of the Ṛgveda Padapāṭha), many upanishadic teachers like Upamanyu, Uddālaka, Śvetaketu, etc (whose names occur in the upaniṣads), many Vedic Ṛṣis who authored vedic hymns, many pre-Buddhist kings (mentioned in the several vedic brahmana texts), and many other historical personages of the late vedic era - they all appear in the Mahābhārata, and their stories are quasi-real to varying levels.

In the Mahābhārata Dvaipāyana is mentioned about 85 times (in 13 of the 18 books therein) by that name. He is the only one who is attested by that surname as well (it is not a common surname) – the Pali EBTs therefore were not talking about another Ṛṣi Kṛṣṇa-Dvaipāyana of the same name, just as they were not talking about another Ajātaśatru or another Udāyī-Bhadra.

There were no parallel Buddhist societies or people bearing the same names. Just as pre-existing Brahmanical religion, gods, philosophical concepts were redefined and borrowed by early Buddhism, the people found in Brahmanical texts (such as Ikṣvāku etc), were also borrowed and their personalities redefined to suit new narratives in early-Buddhist texts i.e. they were depicted as early Buddhists themselves, or as people favourable to Buddhism. How much of it is genuine belief is open to disagreement.

His other patronymic Pārāśarya (i.e. descendant of the Brahmin Parāśara) is also found separately attested in the Pāli canon, as I mentioned earlier. So he and his lineage are not so mysterious or contentional to mainstream brahmanical circles as you imagine. Neither did he irrupt in contention with his father, his clan, or with other Brahmins or their mainstream culture and religion - nor did they irrupt in contention with him (as far as the literary evidence goes). So the dark native hermit appellation doesnt apply to him, all you are going by evidently is just the meaning of the name Kṛṣṇa, which means dark. Having dark skin (even if that was why he was named as such - which itself is not beyond doubt) is not a proof that he was not a mainstream Indo-Aryan brahmin. Skin colour was not such a big thing as you take it to be.

I am not sure what caste rules you have in mind (and whether they did exist or apply at the time of his birth). Having a Brahmin father and a Śūdra mother was not encouraged, but were still considered anuloma (allowable/tolerable i.e. they weren’t considered as proscribed or being a violation). Gotras were (and are) invariably passed patrilineally, not matrilineally - so the fact that he had a Brahmin Ṛṣi (Parāśara) as his father and a fisherwoman as his mother by itself wouldn’t have caused him to become any such thing as what you call a “native dark hermit”. Such a thing as a native dark hermit was not even recognized to be a thing back then (and such a concept is not referred to in any original literature that I have read). In the Vedic period anuloma marriages where the men married women of any class was not so uncommon even for brahmins - it became less usual later in the common era.

Being a fisherwomn (or belonging to other working-class communities) were ipso-facto not proof of their being non Indo-Aryans - which you call ‘natives’ and ‘locals’ - thereby also apparently implying that the Brahmins (and other Indo-Aryans) were not natives or locals.

In the time of the Buddha - the Indo-Aryans had been in India for at least 1000-1500 years if not more. Therefore I dont think making such nativity distinctions is meaningful or appropriate after such a long period (as much as it would not be appropriate to today brand modern Englishmen living in England non-natives, or to call the Celtic speakers natives in contrast to people of Anglo-Saxon heritage, just because 1500 years ago their Anglo-Saxon ancestors migrated and settled in England from abroad).

In India, such questions of root identity are deeply politically divisive and sensitive (and have their roots in colonial divide-and-rule policy - it pits Indians against Indians to brand some of their mainstream cultures and histories native and others as non-native) - generates much resentment and feeds Nazi-ish genocidal narratives against modern Brahmins in particular. I am sure you dont want to put your foot into all that - so please dont make controversial comments on politically and culturally sensitive topics.

The Indo-Aryans had conclusively been Indians for over a millenium before the Buddha - so there it should be allowed to rest - unless you want to intentionally provoke some Indians politcally and culturally by insinuating that their ancestors weren’t “native” to India in the time of the Buddha (who was himself Indo-Aryan from a Brahmanical or Aristocratic background). It doesnt add to the quality of the discussion either. Please use neutral terms like Indo-Aryan and non-Indo-Aryan if you want to show such nuances.

The translation of kaṇha-dīpāyana as “Dark-Light” is not correct as the word “dīpāyana” does not mean “light” (and the words ‘dark-light’ are a contradiction in terms). Rather it means “one born in an island” (the word Dvaipāyana is semantically deconstructed in Sanskrit as dvīpaṃ ayanaṃ utpattisthānaṃ yasya saḥ). The idea that he would have been the son of a fisherwoman would have been a later mythology to explain why his surname name meant “born in an island” - the story of his birth very likely did not precede his name - and using the mythological story of his fisherwoman mother to claim that he was a “native dark hermit” is problematic from many different angles.


  • the story of his imprecation leading to the demise of the entire Vṛṣṇi clan is told in the Mahābhārata – cf. mausale vṛṣṇivīrāṇāṃ vināśo brahmaśāpajaḥ
  • His name is also mentioned in the Arthaśāstra in connection with the same incident – harṣād vātāpir agastyam atyāsādayan vṛṣṇisaṃghaśca dvaipāyanam
  • the same incident is also told in the Pāli Jātaka verses (Saṅkiccajātaka) -
    kaṇhadīpāyanāsajja , isiṁ andhakaveṇḍayo ,
    aññoññaṁ musalā hantvā , sampattā yamasādhanaṁ .
    (“being imprecated by the Ṛṣi Kṛṣṇa-Dvaipāyana, the andhaka-vṛṣṇi clan killed one another with clubs and reached Yama’s abode i.e. the world of the dead”).
  • the andhaka-vṛṣṇis were historical late-vedic clans also mentioned by Pāṇini in his Aṣṭādhyāyi sūtra 4.1.114. ṛṣy-andhaka-vṛṣṇi-kurubhyaś-ca (where he talks about certain grammatical rules to be applied for certain clan names)

So it is clear that the Pāli canon is talking about the same person as the Mahābhārata (and very likely has borrowed the character from the Mahābhārata). Therefore it’s not true that the Pali texts are either earlier or more authentic in their portrayal of anyone (except their portrayal of early-Buddhists). In some cases, Pali sources could possibly be earlier or more authentic - but not across the board.

Not quite. The anxieties you mention were rather for the royal women who feared their children wouldn’t be recognized as royals under normative patrilineal primogeniture (and therefore unfit to rule a Kingdom) if they didnt have royal bloodlines - as a result of being fathered by a Brahmin. That has nothing to do with any dark hermit archetype for Dvaipāyana himself.

How do you come to that conclusion - and where do you find evidence for the authorship of the Mahābhārata being attributed to anybody else (or nobody else) before being attributed to him (and when and why did such a change of attribution happen)?

No - that mysterious and distinct origin that you take for granted is not so self-evident. You will need to show independently that there were once ascetic traditions independent of Vedic sources (practiced by non-Indo-Aryan people in India), and that they fused together, and that the historically attested ascetic traditions of the late-vedic period are the result of such fusing. I am a south Indian myself and I have a fair idea of what mainstream non-Indo-Aryan culture looks like (and must have looked like in the Buddha’s time) in India, and I am not convinced of the historicity of any such native (non-Indo-Aryan) dark hermit traditions that you posit. As a matter of fact, practically all such early ascetic traditions (or at any rate all those falling under the rubric of Hinduism) and all their core early texts are attributed to brahmin figures - and are invariably written in Sanskrit. There is no evidence of any merger of disparate cultural sources that is self-evident from the mere fact of their philosophical diversity (or the mere fact of their scholastic opposition to one another or to specific aspects of the early-Vedic ritualism). The Sankhya, the Yoga, the Vedanta, etc are all Brahmanical traditions from the beginning - that doesnt mean that other classes of Indo-Aryan society (apart from Brahmins) didnt learn them in Sanskrit, or practice them, or even contribute to them. Even early-Buddhism and early-Jainism are predominantly or exclusively Indo-Aryan in origins.

Travelling to the sea does not ipso facto mean travelling south - as India has the sea on 3 of its four cardinal directions. Jaigīṣavya’s ṛddhi or supernatural powers (iddhi in Pāli) and his departure to the world of Brahman (as recounted in the Mahābhārata) is because he was more spiritually and religiously accomplished than Devala and is not an evidence of his mysterious origins, southern origins, non-Indo-Aryan origins, dark hermithood etc. Jaigīṣavya is evidently an Indo-Aryan kṣatriya patronymic (meaning son of a jigīṣu - jigīṣu means “one who wishes for victory” and is usually an epithet for someone royal).

Yes, the Bhaiṣajyavastu in the Tibetan Kangyur (based on originally Mūlasarvāstivādan sanskrit sources) recounts the Ambattha sutta (DN3) where - upon being asked of his family name - he says it is ‘Kāṇvāyana’ - which is a historically valid brahmin surname. So the Pāli account appears less authentic in this respect as there is no attested evidence of any brahmin clan called kaṇhāyana - while there were definitely kāṇvāyanas (descendants of the Ṛgvedic Ṛṣi Kaṇva) in that period. There is even a Kāṇva-śākhā version of the Śatapatha-Brāhmaṇa and the Bṛhadāraṇyaka-Upaniṣad still available (apart from the Mādhyandina-Śākhā version that we usually find translated online).

No it is not. It is a Sanskrit word borrowed into Tamil (and other Dravidian languages).

The word Jaṭila is a taddhita derivative from jaṭā + ilaC pratyaya. The grammatical formation (and semantic scope) of jaṭila, and other similar words such as phenila, lomila, kapila, sikatila, tundila etc. - is described by Pāṇini in the Aṣṭādhyāyī sūtra 5.2.99 phenādilac ca.

The noun jaṭā (on which the taddhita derivative jaṭila is based) is also a Sanskrit word (attested in both BCE & CE texts) – and is considered Indo-Aryan by Prof. Mayrhofer in his etymological dictionary of Sanskrit – “Nebenformen wie *jaṭṭa-, *jāṭā- (Tu, a.a.O.), ep. kl. saṭā- (KEWA
III 420) wurden als Indizien für nicht-Indoeuropäer. ursprung herangezogen (Lit. in KEWA I 413, Tu 5086); die dravid. wortsippe von ta. caṭai ‘Haarlocken’ wird jetzt jedoch als indoar. entlehnung im Dravid.” (Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altindoarischen, vol 1, page 564).

One of the methods in the Oral-Transmission tradition of the Vedas is called the Jaṭā-pāṭha (literally “braided recitation”).

The Madras University Tamil Lexicon also considers both of them loanwords from the Sanskrit (as there is no way to explain their etymology and grammatical form in Tamil).

  • சடிலம் caṭilam , n . < jaṭila 1. Closeness, thickness; denseness, as of hair, foliage;
  • சடை⁴ caṭai , n . < jaṭā . 1. Matted locks of hair; சடையாக அமைந்த மயிர்முடி. விரிசடைப் பொறையூழ்த்து (பரிபா. 9, 5). 2. Plaited hair; பின்னியகூந்தல். (பிங்.) 3. Bushy, shaggy or thick hair; அடர்ந்த மயிர்.
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Levman has just uploaded a 2-page errata.