Did the Buddha invent trolling?

In SN 6.14, the Buddha tells a story of the past. In ancient days, the Buddha Sikhā and his student Abhibhū paid a visit to a certain Brahma realm. The Buddha asked his disciple to teach Dhamma; but the Brahmas complained about it—how could a student teach in front of the Teacher?

So the Buddha, instead of backing down, encouraged Abhibhu to stir them up some more. Abhibhu, requiring little in the way of encouragement, proceed to teach dhamma while making himself wholly or partly invisible; then the Buddha encouraged him to project his voice throughout the galaxy. Needless to say, the Brahmas were sufficiently impressed.

What I want to know is, did the Buddha—strictly speaking a past Buddha—invent trolling? I mean, he deliberately did what they found annoying in order to get a rise out of them. Isn’t that the essence of trolling?

Okay, so he had a higher motive, which modern day trolls lack. Still, this story tells us something about speaking truth to power. Just because it doesn’t fit in with the kind of discourse that the powerful are used to hearing is no reason to stop. On the contrary, when you get a reaction, it’s a sign that you’re being heard. Keep going!


When the shocked Brahmas turned to Buddha I can only imagine his face:


Only this year have I understood the conditions in which the Buddha offered his teachings, against the backdrop of the dominant Brahmanism. I think I was tipped off to this context by a series of talks that John Peacock gave, that placed the Buddha in the midst of the Brahmans, sometimes at great risk to his safety. Add to that the way that the Buddha utilized concepts like kamma, and redefined them and brought them from Vedic ritualism into a system of ethics.

This backstory, along with the Suttas here on SC, and the many talks given by Ajahns Sujato and Brahmali on youtube, injected so much life and energy into my appreciation of the Buddha and his teachings. And yes, this sense of “trolling” suggested to me the magnificence and personality of this unique man, maybe the way that Einstein had such a sense of joy and energy in his personality despite his deep genius, and the fierce opposition that he faced from competitors and scientists in general to his theories of general and special relativity.

Maybe every few thousand years this world gets geniuses of this sort. I’ll never understand Einstein’s theories to any level of merit, but I’m motivated to understand the Buddha’s Dhamma, and to appreciate how his skillful humor, artful slagging of the status quo, and obvious genius in all matters of the heart and mind can still impact us so strongly today.


My recollection of John Peacock’s view was that he believes the main impact of Brahmanism on Buddhism occurred after the Buddha’s time, and that the texts thus sometimes show the impact of a later “creeping Brahmanism”. Johannes Bronkhorst’s recent book argues that the primary context in which the Buddha’s teaching emerged was not among the Brahminified region to the west, but in the region of “Greater Maghada” among the various samana schools of that region, particularly the Jains and Ajivikas.

But I think it is important to recognize that there are Brahmins everywhere in the Sutta Pitika. Sometimes these interactions are portrayed as antipathetic, but other times as quite respectful. One of the most important of the early texts, the Pārāyana Vagga of the Sutta Nipata, consists entirely of conversations between the Buddha and 16 Brahmin students, who following the directions of their teacher Bavari traveled to the Buddha to question him and learn from him as a revered teacher of renown. The commentary says that Bavari was a Brahmin ascetic, and that the students were all converted. The tradition also informs us that Sariputta was a Brahman, Moggalana was a Brahman and Kassapa was a Brahman. And the Buddha deliberately selected these people as his chief disciples, which is in itself and interesting clue.

My interpretation is that the Buddha saw himself as carrying out a kind of “mission” to the Brahmas, not to convert them to an entirely new way of thinking, but to call them back to what he regarded as a purer, more austere, and more ancient and original renunciant tradition that had existed among them. He’s a Kattiyya acting at the same time as a kind of reforming Brahmanic puritan. (Maybe one reason he was so interested in getting prominent Brahmin disciples was to learn more about Brahminic teachings from them, teachings he had not picked up himself in his wanderings.) The Brahmins in the Suttas are often represented as responding favorably to this teaching, and so it seems safe to assume there was already quite a bit of internal debate among them about what makes somebody a “true Brahmana” - whether it was purely a matter of birth and ancestry, or more a question of piety, austerity, fidelity to ancestral ways, knowledge of the Vedas, and other personal merits.

The hostility seems to occur with wealthier householder Brahmins who have reached a prominent social position something like a feudal landlord. They are the ones portrayed as mocking and berating “shavelings” and deploring the practice of begging for food rather than working a field to grow it. But even some of these Brahmans are represented as being converted. No doubt there was some growing social resentment toward people who had grown rich and lordly through priestcraft, including among humbler Brahmans themselves, and this had something to do with the spreading popularity of Buddhism.

As we know, the Buddha frequently uses the term “brahman” as a general term meaning something like “holy man” or “one devoted to the holy life”. For example, when the converted Angulimala is hit with a potsherd and a stone, the Buddha tells him, “Bear with it brahman!” There is a common contemporary tendency to say that the Buddha uses the term mainly in an ironical and humorous way to get in a “dig” at the brahmins. But the texts give us the impression that the Buddha is often quite in earnest about using it to refer to “true” brahmins, and that his attitude resonated among a not insignificant number of brahmins themselves. Historians tell us that the caste system had not yet fully emerged as a biologically determined social order in the Buddha’s time. So the Buddha’s teaching took place in a context in which these questions of hierarchy, holiness and social place were still contested - not just among those outside the emerging brahmin caste but within it as well.

The Buddha often call all religiously inclined wanderers and holy men by the single term “samanabrahmana”, which suggests to me he thought of himself as attempting to unify two diverse spiritual traditions into one proper conception of the holy life. And again, this deliberate syncretism probably had something to do with Buddhism’s great success as a movement.

And then there is that whole business of the mahapurisa and the 32 marks! … which suggests the Buddha came to be seen by at least some Brahmins as the fulfillment of an ancient tradition prophesying the appearance of the Great Man.

The Buddhist historiographical tradition often seems to want to make the Brahmins the bad guys pure and simple, or to blame them for all of the distortions in the Buddhist teachings as they have come down to us. But I think the texts point at a more complicated story that we still don’t understand well, especially given the lack of written documents.


Thanks for this discussion, Dan. An interesting read, and I’ll take these comments with me as I research further the historical circumstances in which the Buddha was teaching. Thanks for taking the time and care to respond with such detail.


You’re welcome Anagarika. Please take them all with a very large grain of salt and do more research! I am very much an amateur.


Dan, this is one of the great things about Sutta Central. We’re all here helping each other, and certainly the scholarship here is often extraordinary. I don’t think there’s a day I’ve been a member here that I didn’t elevate my study or curiosity just a bit, and your contribution did just that. Thanks!


Same here!