Does "cutā" mean "die" or "fall away"? [AN 1.347-1.377 and the rarity of good rebirths]

AN 1.347-1.377 is series of rather pessimistic suttas in which the rarity of “good” births is contrasted with the ubiquity of “bad” births. These suttas are paralleled in SN 56. Here is an example of a Bhikkhu Sujato translation of one such sutta in this series:

those who die as humans and are reborn as humans are few, while those who die as humans and are reborn in hell, or the animal realm, or the ghost realm are many.

The word that is translated “die” here is “cutā”. However, the Pali dictionary says cutā means “fallen away” or “shifted”. The same word is used in Sn 4.13, where it seems to literally refer to falling away from something, not death:

If he falls away from virtuous conduct and vows,
He is anxious, having failed in his task.

By contrast, AN 8.36 uses the expression “kāyassa bhedā paraṃ maraṇā”, which is translated “when the body breaks up, after death.” This seems like a more clear-cut description of death than “fallen away” or “shifted.”

This sutta is also more optimistic in tone — here, it is stated that humans with even a little moral development and generosity will be reborn as humans (albeit ones in bad conditions). I’m having a hard time squaring this with the pessimism of AN 1.347-1.377, unless one is to conclude that most humans don’t even have a small amount of morality/generosity.

Question: Is it possible that AN 1.347-1.377 (and the SN 56 parallel) isn’t referring to beings merely dying in a particular state, but rather falling away from a particular state? Like, instead of “those who die as humans”, could it mean “those who fall away from humans”, or something of the like? Or am I missing something here? Any thoughts from someone with Pali expertise would be greatly appreciated.

EDIT: Another example of Cutā in the sense of a “falling away from morality” is found at AN 4.2:

They fall, collapsed and fallen [Cutā patanti patitā],
greedy, they return [giddhā ca punarāgatā;].


The past passive participle cuta derives from a verbal root cu (Sanskit cyu). Historically, this verb had a primary meaning ‘to be in motion’. The semantic range in Pali and Sanskrit includes ‘to shake, to shift, to stir, to fall, to disappear, to perish’ etc.

Just as in English we might speak of someone ‘passing away/on’, so this verb which indicates movement from one place to another could apparently be used in Pali (like in Sanskrit) to refer to death.

Context, as always, is key.

Does that help?


Thank you for your input :slightly_smiling_face:

FWIW, I did more research on the word in the Pali Cannon, and there do seem to be instances where the term seems to be a fairly straightforward forward reference to death w/o necessarily negative implications (e.g., AN 6.10). In those cases, it seems like the emphasis is more on “shifting” from one state to another – they are “shifting” from humans to gods, or from one caste to another (e.g., Thi Ap 19).

1 Like

Yes, just to confirm your last comment, sometimes cuti does mean unambiguously “death”, in other cases it has different nuances. I tried to make the meaning clear in each case. There are quite a few idioms for “death” in Pali—as there are in English.