Does gandhabba mean “semen”?

A passage of the Pali canon introduces the gandhabba as playing a significant role in the conception of the child. The passage occurs twice in the Majjhima (as well as various parallels). Of these, the reference at MN 38 Mahātaṇhāsaṅkhayasutta is certainly secondary, due to its extended character, while the reference at MN 93 Assalāyana should be regarded as the primary occurrence.

Traditional explanations of odd ideas typically focus on looking forward, making them fit in with later doctrine, and for this reason, the Buddhist context at MN 38 is far more famous. As a historical scholar, I am more interested in, not what Buddhists made of it in later years, but what it meant to the original audience. Since in MN 93 this passage is purely brahmanical, being spoken only among brahmins with no Buddhists even present, it is safe to assume that it was originally a brahmanical idea, or at least, was believed to be so.

Here is the passage from MN 93. It occurs as part of a long argument about caste. The brahim student Assalāyana asserts the primacy of the brahmins, and the Buddha interrogates the grounds for his belief. The Buddha then relates the story of the past, a discussion between “Devala the Dark”—one of the mysterious “dark hermits” who appear in the Pali—and seven brahmin hermits (reminiscent of the “seven hermits” of brahmin lore). Devala provokes them, resists their curses, then interrogates them on caste. They say they understand how an embryo is conceived.

‘An embryo is conceived when these three things come together—the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the gandhabba is present.’

‘But do you know for sure whether that gandhabba is an aristocrat, a brahmin, a merchant, or a worker?’

‘We don’t know that.’

What, then, did it mean to the brahmins? Clearly the view is presented as being part of an archaic brahmanical lore. Now, I am merely a dabbler in these areas, so I welcome a more informed opinion. But for me the most intriguing essay on this was the article by Wijesekera in his astonishing Buddhist and Vedic Studies. Here it is, thanks to the good folk at the Internet Archive!

There is so much great mythological lore in this chapter, I am loathe to summarize it. But very briefly, Wijesekera points out the following aspects of the gandhabba (gandharva in Sanskrit).

  • It originated in the very ancient past, possibly pre-Indo-European, and appears early as a golden-hooved monster or nymph of the deep waters.
  • He also guards the celestial waters.
  • He is probably related to Greek kantauros (i.e centaur) and thus with rampant male potency.
    • Wijesekera doesn’t get into this, but this suggests to me that the gandhabba was the defining deity of the foundational Indo-Europeans, to whom the taming of the horse granted unequaled power. Other deities may have been shared or inherited, but gandhabba was them.
  • He is (punningly) associated with smell
  • He is associated with Soma (the moon/potency/divine essence/drug) back at least to Indo-Iranian times. Specifically with the Soma juice (rasa (sap) = retas (semen); note that soma is referred to by the same word sukka that is used for semen in the Pali)
  • Soma is a vitalizing power and the source of Indra’s energy.
  • Soma is also said to be the atman of food.
  • The rain that quickens the earth and the semen that creates pregnancy are associated as far back as Vedic times.
  • The unrestrained sexuality of the gandhabba is a danger to the embryo, they are described as “the hairy ones that devour embryos”. (This is part of the normal aspect of ancient mythology: gods are neither good nor bad, but powerful and hence must be placated.)
  • The gandhabba is also the sun, especially in its aspect of sinking into the waters, another sexual metaphor, and hence is associated with procreation.
  • The gandhabba’s lustiness led to his being associated with desire for women, and later, with the idea of a “love-marriage”.
  • He is hence able to drive men and women to madness.
  • And in some cases, he is even a disincarnate spirit that possesses humans.

Now if all this seems like a lot, it is. And it’s only a little of what Wijesekera adduces. The irreducible and paradoxical complexity of the constellation of ideas that is the gandhabba speaks to its antiquity; we receive multiple aspects refracted through time. Now, many of these aspects find expression in the Pali. Normally, of course, the gandhabba is considered to be a lusty and vivacious minor deity. But I am here only concerned with its role in procreation.

Now, consider some of the ancient brahmanical theories of rebirth. There are multiple not always consistent accounts, but a famous one is in the Chandogya Upanishad.

Basically, a woman is regarded as an altar to which the gods, working through the man, bestow semen as offering, from whence arises the embryo. The process of rebirth is long and wandering, but essentially souls are reborn on the moon (soma), from where they rain down and are reborn in the food such as rice, corn, herbs, trees, sesame and beans (food is a divine force of utmost importance to the Upanishads!). The Chandogya says:

Whoever the persons may be that eat the food and beget offspring, he then becomes like them. Those whose conduct has been good will quickly attain some good birth as a brahmin, khattiya, or vessa. But those of bad conduct will take an evil birth: a dog or pig or outcaste.

Rebirth has a cosmic and organic dimension that is absent from Buddhism. The Kausitiki says “the soul is produced from semen”. The atman is a complex and many-facted idea in the Upanishads, but it is crucial to understand that there is an important thread that sees the individual atman as a quasi-physical entity that is passed to the mother through the semen. It goes without saying that the mother is regarded as merely the incubator of the embryo, not as the source of its atman.

Now to the Pali passage. To my mind Wijesekera’s discussion here is less adequate. He quite rightly points out the implausibility of the proposal by some earlier scholars that the gandhabba “presided” over rebirth. The relevant verb paccupaṭṭhito hoti has the sense “standing by” i.e. “ready to go”.

But he then says that “the text is unequivocal and leaves no doubt as to the real nature of gandhabba which clearly must refer in the context to the ‘spirit’ of a previously dead ksatriya, brahmin, vaisya, or sudra”. He then refers back to his previous discussion in section 12.

But I don’t think that discussion establishes such a clear conclusion at all. He shows an association between the gandhabba and the power over the mind, which I take as being a reference to the power of sexual desire. The apsaras, for example, are said to be the “mind-bewildering wives of the gandhabbas”. He then refers to a couple of cases of possession, in support of the idea that a gandhabba was a spirit, but these are just everyday cases of spirit possession, not connected with procreation.

He sets aside all the evidence that he has so painstakingly adduced about the cosmic/organic qualities of the gandhabba and semen. Then he goes on to support his conclusion with reference to later Buddhist texts. But of course they are concerned to rationalize this odd idea, which alludes to all kinds of arcane and uncomfortable notions, and fit it in with their doctrines.

The biggest single problem with the later Buddhist idea that “gandhabba = rebirth consciousness” is that there is then little role for the man. In fact, of the three factors, all that is required of the man is that he has intercourse. He has no other direct relation with procreation at all. But in the brahmanical tradition, as we have seen, the “seed” is essentially male, and it is the woman who is secondary.

indriyeṇa te retasā reta ādadhāmīti | garbhiṇy eva bhavati || BrhUp_6,4.11 ||
With power, with semen, I deposit semen in you!’ Thus she becomes pregnant.

I don’t for one moment believe the brahmins would advocate such a diminished role for men.

No. The gandhabba is a euphemism for the divine element of male potency that is the primary force of procreation. This is the semen, which contains the atmans of those who have previously died, and who have wandered through the paths of the moon, the rain, the earth, and the grain, before being eaten by him. No-one can know the caste of these atmans, which is why it is so troubling for the brahmanical doctrine of caste.

Thus we should translate something like:

An embryo is conceived when these three things come together—the mother and father come together, the mother is in the fertile part of her menstrual cycle, and the virile spirit is potent.

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Magnificent! Just as if he were to carry a lamp into the dark so that those with eyes could see, in the same way has Master Sujato — through many lines of reasoning — made the Dhamma clear! :joy:

Yes, the Pāli Canon is typically quite circumspect about mentioning the physical abilities of the persons involved. And I’m quite sure that impotence was a known ailment at the time :laughing: It is obvious that the sutta should refer to the male’s potency here, in addition to the female’s.

As anyone who’s learned Shakespeare in school can attest, sexual euphemisms are often the quickest part of a language to change and to become opaque to subsequent readers. It would make sense to me for later Buddhists to miss the sexual meaning here and instead see an Abhidharmic clue to one of their metaphysical questions.

An eminently plausible theory in my estimation! Sādhu! :pray:

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Very interesting research into gandharvas! I didn’t realize that they were similar to centaurs in ancient mythology. Unfortunately, the parallels in Chinese don’t really support reading gandharva as semen, though. One of them appears to mention semen separately from the gandharva:

復次三事合會入於母胎,父母聚集一處、母滿精堪耐、香陰已至。 [MA 201, T26.769b23-25]

Furthermore, three things come together to enter a mother’s womb. The father and mother get together in one place, the mother is filled with semen (滿精) and bears it (堪耐), and the gandharva has arrived.

堪耐 literally means “to endure, bear,” but I think it might refer to childbearing, so it could mean she becomes pregnant or that she’s capable of it.

The translation of gandharva in MA has, well, colorful readings that are possible. 香 means “fragrant” and 陰 is yin, the female principle from the philosophical concept of yin-yang. 陰 can mean lots of things associated with femininity, from shade to being quiet, but it can be a euphemism for the sex organs. So, it’s possible to read 香陰 as “the odor of sex”. Not that I think that was necessarily the intent, but it’s not clear what 陰 stands for in a literal translation of gandharva, either. And it’s interesting given the mythological history that you’ve researched about gandharvas.

Another Chinese parallel, T71, is even more explicit about what the gandharva represents:

父有貪婬之態,母有愛慕之心,所當為作子者,三合成子。 [T71.878b5-6]
The father’s state of lust, the mother’s passionate love, and the one who will become their child: These three things combine to become a child.

This translation is idiomatic, expressing things like being sexually aroused with poetic euphemisms. So, I think third item likely is telling us directly what the gandharva stands for: The person being reborn.

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Serving you piping hot takes on matters high and low!

If you haven’t already, you really should read Wijesekera. His chapters on vinnana, kalpa, yaksa, and others are equally interesting. He was from that generation of scholars that was widely learned and took mythology seriously.

Not unexpected, as they would tend to follow the rationalizing interpretation, as of course have pretty much all modern English translation. But still good to see what they have.

For the record, Divy on this passage (which is likely the same or similar school I think?) has:

mātā kalyā bhavati ṛtumatī

For utunī/ṛtumatī see my former essay.

Anyway, it seems hard to get that Chinese sense from the Indic texts.

This is of course a literal rendering of gandha-.

DDB is helpful here. Given that 香 = gandha then likely 陰 = -arva or similar.

The DDB entry gives Sanskrit abhra as one rendering, which is pretty close. In Sanskrit, abhra means “water-bearer”, cloud, rain, which are all commonly associated with the Gandhabba.

It’s interesting that they managed to squeeze in two accurate, unrelated, yet common features of the gandhabba into one phrase.

So it would seem the literal rendering of 香陰 is “fragrant cloud”, or perhaps “the spirit of the fragrant cloud” (?).

Indeed, it seems quite loosely adapted from the Indic. Worth noting that, so far as I know, the Indic versions are pretty consistent.

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Alas, 21st century humanity is really missing out on the nuanced power of genuine mythology, folk tales, sagas and the storytellers by the firelight who shed light on the forces that helped make sense of things. Perhaps not literal, but without a developed ear for such things, it’s not as easy to grasp what was said long ago.

Very interesting take on gandhabba, Bhante!

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食香、尋香行、香神、香陰.

The general concept in Chinese is that these spirits subsist by consuming smells (i.e. of the offerings made for the departed). The nice ones eat good smells, the bad ones eat bad smells.

This concept was illustrated in an anecdote from Cambodia. A traveller asked a local if the place was haunted due to killings. The locals told them that it wasn’t- the ghosts had all died because nobody was around to make offerings.

I haven’t worked professionally in Chinese translation since…a long time ago (2014?), but some thoughts. 陰 can sometimes mean “khandhas” 五陰 = 五蘊. 陰 is the old pre-Tang translation, 蘊 is post-Tang. This is exemplified in idiomatic terms 中陰 OR 中蘊 for antarabhāva, literally meaning " the intermediate state of the khandhas". I guess there is probably some type of Abhidharma based argumentation/interpretation on the role of khandhas in rebirth behind this that is unknown to me. The translator may have been trying to tiptoe around a debate or avoid implying a soul: I can imagine the translator writing 香神 (spirit subsisting on fragrance) first and then flipping out trying to find an alternative before arriving at 香陰 (set of khandhas sustained by fragrance).

One (slightly suspect) Chinese etymology suggests that skandha (蘊) in Sanskrit also means that which covers or conceals (陰), hence the older/outdated use of the character 陰 in this sense of khandhas in Chinese.

It is worth noting that one Chinese term for a bardo-body is 中陰身.

香陰 might therefore have the sense of being a bardo-body or personality [=set of khandhas] subsisting on fragrance, in contradistinction to a soul-essence. Via a different set of meanings that relate more to “khandhas” than to “shady”.

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That’s likely because the original didn’t read like extant Indic parallels. MA is not a translation to dismiss lightly, it’s probably the most accurate and literal of the Chinese Agamas. The passage describing the mother does read differently in the two parallels that it contains, though. One mentions semen and the other doesn’t, but neither reads exactly like the Pali does.

Except that those meanings have a more common and straightforward Chinese words if that was the intent. As an example, there are hells in DA 30 apparently called Abhra and Nirabhra which were translated to Chinese as 厚雲 and 無雲: “dense clouds” and “cloudless.” When yin means cloudy, it’s more a statement about the weather; i.e., the sun isn’t shining, or the light is dim. But, yes, it can end up referring to clouds.

Ordinarily, what yin means is related to being hidden, secret, or difficult to see. When someone is quiet and doesn’t let you know what they’re thinking, that’s yin. When the sun is behind the clouds, that’s yin. The sex organs are yin because they are ordinarily kept strictly hidden from view, so it’s like the English expression “privates” in that reading. It’s used in this meaning to translate the equivalent of P. kosohita in the expression kosohitavatthaguyha; in DA 1 it’s translated as 陰馬藏, the hidden horse organ.

I would guess that S. gandharva would have been G. gaṃdhava in the early Chinese Agamas, not gaṃdhabhra, since that’s the attestation that exists at gandhari.org. I’m not really sure what the second part of that Indic word really means, but G. ava means “water” and S. arvan means “horse” or “quick.” I’m not sure how we end up with S. abhra when the equivalent is P. abbha rather than abba.

So, you see my inability to really discern what yin is supposed to mean in MA’s translation. It doesn’t really make much sense from the Indic angle or the Chinese one. But I can’t figure out what yin was really supposed to mean when it was used to translate S. skandha, either. All I can think of is that the aggregates weren’t considered obvious?

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It could be a Mahāyāna or even Abhidharma-influenced reading, as exemplified in this quote from the Śūraṅgama Sūtra, showing the delusive or deceiving qualities of the skandhas, one of which is 幽隱 (隱晦;隱蔽), to conceal i.e. in the sense of preventing knowledge (不讓人知道). I think it’s the active sense of 陰 here as being the concealer rather than the concealed. It can be used in a similar way in Chinese dialect too; 我今兒個讓人給陰了- today I was tricked by somebody.

But it’s not necessarily fully clear to me either. 陰 is not really the word I would have chosen for the khandhas, all I know is that for obscure reasons, it was chosen, and updated later.

《楞嚴經·卷十》對於五蘊(五陰)的論述,首先強調了:‘五陰本因,同是妄想。 ’,然後闡述了五種妄想─“堅固、虛明、融通、幽隱、顛倒”─而對應了“色、受、想、行、識”五蘊。然後闡述了五蘊的邊際與次第關係而說:

“ 阿難。是五受陰,五妄想成。汝今欲知因界淺深。唯色與空,是色邊際。唯觸及離,是受邊際。唯記與妄,是想邊際。唯滅與生,是行邊際。湛入合湛,歸識邊際。此五陰元,重疊生起。生因識有,滅從色除。理則頓悟,乘悟並消。事非頓除,因次第盡。 ”

闡明五蘊妄執的生起次第乃是“識、行、想、受、色”,其除斷次第也就是反向的“色、受、想、行、識”,如四念處從身念處先下手。"

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No, thank you, not if you’re going back into the vedas. And then I guess it depends which one. We’ll stick with Aditi thanks.

Is this really true? I think that particular rebirth cycle is connected to the question of whether you sacrifice or don’t. If you sacrifice and get well burnt on the funeral pyre, I think you can go to Heaven. I don’t think it’s lasting either, from there you have to go to the seat of Heaven, and that’s a very special thing. This is in the misty fogs of time for me though, and I’d have to go back and check my sources. I’m not sure that varna was in place yet when these cycles were generated in myth (or whatever). Varna is definitely RV X, right. Definitely hierarchal structure was earlier, but to this day, do the Brahmins not cite the purusa sukta as justification for their ongoing purity issues?

Sorry if I’m being rude.

Anyway …

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It’s a good point, and definitely there are different paths for different people, maybe by caste or ritual or whatever. It’s all pretty vague and fluid, and I really don’t think there was a single, settled theory. But I think that all that is needed for the rhetorical point is that they didn’t really know what the caste was.

:thinking: Just riffing here on the imagery, but this makes me think of the skandhas as “heaps” Like, a pile of leaves raked together which covers the ground (of being).

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Oh I completely agree with your exploration of gandhabba and reason for thinking it’s male potency/semen.

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Entertaining to say the least. I can’t imagine Buddha coming up with this stuff. Foundation of Paticca Samuppada was not a Gandhabba for sure.
But then suttas are built of remnants of Buddha’s words floating around, according to V. Sujato and
V. Bodhi.
Some compilers may have been fond of fairy tales, and Brahmaniacal ideas? and sprinkled parts of MN, DN, and AN with such ideas???
Regards

This is a good point, and I have not fully addressed it. The basic problem is that there is a contrast between the, let us call it, “animist” description of rebirth in the Upanishads, and the, let us call it “empirical” description by the Buddha. Normally these are quite distinct, and it is clear that the Buddha intended his teaching to be a critique of the animist approach. Yet in this case, an animist idea is adopted within the empirical teaching.

How you read this then depends on your perspective. The tradition takes the context of dependent origination as primary, and thus gives a rationalizing explanation of gandhabba: it is the rebirth consciousness. Now from a doctrinal point of view, this is obviously correct. The Buddha is talking about the same process that he normally described in terms of consciousness.

But when you look at the passage historically, it clearly comes from the Vedic/Brahmanic tradition. And it is noteworthy that the Pali commentary does not attempt to explain this in the commentary on MN 93.

The question remains: why did the Buddha use such an animist idea in the context of dependent origination? Why not just say “rebirth consciousness”? And that is really the oddity at the heart of it all.

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Maybe I’m missing something, but in Buddhism there can be no rebirth consciousness except through an organic means such as the genetic function of semen. Otherwise, you would be dealing with something like the purusa-prakriti of samkya. And then you’re dealing with a transmigratory pure consciousness and animate, yet essentially stupid matter, there to entrance the purusa, bringing together some kind of unity.

I’ll lay my cards on the table. Rebirth consciousness is nothing. It’s an idea.

The term gandhabba is not found in SN 12. Nidana Samyutta and its SA version. So, the Buddha did not use it in the texts in the context of dependent origination.

But the term gandhabba is presented in SN 31. Gandhabbakaya Samyutta in the sense of deva.

So, the question is why in Buddhism this term also refers to a being in the intermediate state between death and rebirth.

True the Buddha did not use it in the texts in the context of dependent origination. He did not have the need to. True the term gandhabba is found in SN 31. But none of the suttas in Gandhabakayasamyutta has Agama parallels. What does that say???
Why do we find this term in Buddhism? Could it have been due to Vedic influence, just as much as we find Arupa Samapatthis in Buddhism which were practiced before Buddha’s time, and which are not central to liberation from suffering?

According to Choong Mun-keat:

“Nāga Saṃyutta (no. 29 “Connected with Nāgas”), Supaṇṇa Saṃyutta (no. 30 “Connected with Supaṇṇas”), Gandhabba Saṃyutta (no. 31 “Connected with Gandhabbas”), and Valāhaka1 Saṃyutta (no. 32 “Connected with Valāhakas”) in the Saṃyutta-nikāya are a group of sequential collections about early Buddhist adaptations of Vedic mythical beliefs regarding nāgas “mythical dragons/snakes”, supaṇṇas “mythical birds”, gandhabbas “fragrant plant devas”, and valāhakas “cloud devas”.”

See “A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of Nāga Saṃyutta , Supaṇṇa Saṃyutta , and Valāhaka Saṃyutta , early Buddhist discourse collections on mythical dragons, birds, and cloud devas”, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies , 2020 (18), pp. 42-65.

A comparison of the Pāli and Chinese versions of Nāga Saṃyutta, Supaṇṇa Saṃyutta, and Valāhaka Saṃyutta, early Buddhist discourse collections on mythical dragons, birds, and cloud devas | Mun Keat Choong - Academia.edu

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@sujato @cdpatton
P.S. I just had a bit of a further look re 香陰 from MĀ 151 and MĀ 201 (khandhas subsisting on fragrance), and found that Ven. Analayo gives 生陰, (birth khandhas), as a Song, Yuan and Ming variant reading (both if which should be understood as the being taking rebirth).

But how do we know that the descriptions of rebirth in the Upanishads were ever meant to be animist? Are we reading the same texts? The basic pattern of all rebirth themes in the Upanishads is atman–>five elements–>rebirth, this is made explicit in later Upanishads like the Kausitaki Upaniṣad but can be seen in early Upanishads like the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya Upanishads too.

Might Bhante kindly provide the Sanskrit for where the Kausitaki Upaniṣad says the soul is produced from semen?

This is a comment only because I find this interesting. It’s kind of fascinating though that the Chinese tradition has chosen to use the term “intermediate khandhas” where we would expect “intermediate consciousness” [consciousness=識神] or something like that. Having had time to think about it, I think what is being implied is something like the following:

‘Apart from form, feeling, perception, and choices, I will describe the coming and going of consciousness, its passing away and reappearing, its growth, increase, and maturity.’ That is not possible.’ SN22.54

cf SA 39 比丘!若離色、受、想、行,識有若來、若去、若住、若生者,彼但有言數,問已不知,增益生癡,以非境界故。