Existence, eternity, and the gods

It is generally understood that in the Indic idiom, words meaning “to be” can slide into a more pregnant philosophical sense, especially with the implication of “eternal, changeless existence”. If something really is, or so it’s felt, it exists in a timeless, essential sense. This is perhaps akin to Plato’s forms. Obviously the Buddha’s philosophy opposed this tendency. Such notions are usually made explicit in the EBTs, so it is not easy to find clear examples of cases where the mere use of the word “exists” implies “exists eternally”.

It seems, though, that there may be such a context in MN 90. There, King Pasenadi, somewhat abruptly asks the Buddha whether gods exist, and a little later, whether Brahmā exists. The phrase is atthi devā, and all the translators that I have seen (Chalmers, Uppalavanna, Bodhi, Horner, Thanissaro) translate this as “Are there gods?” But the exchange translated thus makes little sense. From Ven Bodhi:

“Are there gods?”
“Why do you ask that, great king?”
“Venerable sir, I was asking whether those gods come back to this [human] state or whether they do not.”

Now, this particular sutta has a number of textual problems, and perhaps this just another example. While this may be true, it is best to read a text as if it makes sense, unless this is impossible.

On the other hand, we might interpret this as Pasenadi’s somewhat clumsy way of putting the question. But, while it is true that he was not the brightest of the Buddha’s students, it seems odd that he would misphrase such a simple question. Moreover, he repeats the same question later when asking about Brahmā.

Perhaps, after all, he was asking a question that makes sense, but which was merely ambiguous. The Buddha’s response is to clarify the exact sense of “exists”.

Here is a possible approach to translating this:

“Do gods absolutely exist?”
“But what exactly are you asking?”
“Whether those gods come back to this world or not.”

It’s possible to read the first line as “is it absolutely the case that there are gods?” or “do gods exist in an absolute sense?” Pasenadi’s response clarifies that he is asking a question about permanence, whether those gods remain in the same realm forever, or if they get reborn.