Horton Hears A Who and the Asuras: Can we talk about this!?

So at SN 56.41 we have quite the interesting tale. The relevant section I am referring to is as follows:

‘Sirs, I left Rājagaha, thinking “I’ll speculate about the world.” I went to the Sumāgadhā lotus pond and sat down on the bank speculating about the world. Then I saw an army of four divisions enter a lotus stalk. That’s why I’m mad, that’s why I’ve lost my mind. And that’s what I’ve seen that doesn’t exist in the world.’
‘Well, mister, you’re definitely mad, you’ve definitely lost your mind. And you’re seeing things that don’t exist in the world.’
[The Buddha said:] But what that person saw was in fact real, not unreal. Once upon a time, a battle was fought between the gods and the anti-gods. In that battle the gods won and the anti-gods lost. The defeated and terrified anti-gods entered the citadel of the anti-gods through the lotus stalk only to confuse the gods.

This sutta has a Chinese parallel at SA 407. I ran it through DeepL, and it too has the same story of the man seeing a tiny army enter a plant/pond and the Buddha confirming that this was, in fact, real and happened between the devas and asuras.

A very similar story is told by the famous children’s author Dr. Seuss in his seminal work “Horton Hears A Who”

The elephant Horton notices that there is a whole civilization of people living in what is called Whoville on a speck of dust / lotus-stalk looking plant.

The book’s central theme is "a person’s a person, no matter how small.” Horton defends the rights of another species of sentient being and goes to strenuous lengths to protect them from harm from others who do not value their sentience, lives, or personhood. It’s interesting that this is also within the context of animals: Horton is not a human, but an elephant. So not only is the theme about protecting and valuing the lives of other sentient beings who may be seen as foreign, “unreal,” dubious, small, insignificant, etc., it is also within the larger context of animals being intelligent, sentient, capable of compassion and forming complex opinions, etc.

All that aside: can we talk about this? It just seems interesting that it has rarely been mentioned. @sujato mentioned it in his post on the relativistic physics of the gods, but I have not heard it in any other Buddhist discussions, questions, or posts here. The fact that it has a parallel and occurs in the context of the four noble truths and speculative views give some credence to its authenticity in my opinion.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Anybody able to provide a more reliable translation of SA 407 from Chinese for comparison?

One thing I noticed in the parallel if the translation was not mistaken (?) is that it implies that the world of the asuras is underground or physically lower in some sense. The Pāli kind of captures this but seems to imply that they were hiding or it was some trick that was not permanent. It also seems to be a place where the Buddha categorically states that the asuras are real, not just part of allegorical stories.

Mettā :pray:


Was there something that prompted you to think that?

Anyway, not the asura army expert, but… the thing the army enters in SA 407 is one 藕孔, a single lotus root hole (just one of the holes shown in the pic below).

A very similar story is told by the famous children’s author Dr. Seuss in his seminal work “Horton Hears A Who”.

That’s interesting. My first exposure to the asuras in lotus stalk motif was actually through Victorian or Edwardian British children’s literature long before the SN.

It was in a book where there was this big manor garden, the cool type with a resident hermit with long nails and hair. And in the lake was a lotus stalk that beings entered into. It was very fascinating, I am quite sure this motif had an “oriental source”.

But alas cannot recall the title, it was in the Toowoomba city library. “Little people” were something of a Victorian vibe ever since the Lilliputs in Gulliver’s travels I guess.

(Edit: I think I found it, 1959 “The River at Green Knowe”. Set in 18th cent not actually 18th cent).

It is a bit of a weird story in the SN anyway, it may have been pre Buddhist. I wonder if there is a shared Hindu-Buddhist source- I assume that this was a common theme for the SN compilers.

In the Puranic literature, Indra enters into a lotus stalk- I googled and this motif apparently has old Indo-European roots. But I am not very familar with it.


I already had taken the whole cosmology of 31 realms as literal. So there’s no additional surprise factor for me here.

This sutta is usually used by me to illustrate that the Buddha was not afraid to declare things which he clearly knows is unbelievable to people then. Thus this negates any argument from secular Buddhists to say that Buddha only taught rebirth, kamma, gods, etc because of the cultural expectations that these things are true for the society then.

Apparently not, since it’s considered so hard to believe, that those who had seen it thought he had gone crazy. Thus, Buddha only spoke about it, because it’s true. Buddhas cannot lie.

Some other things like the earth will end in fire of the 7 suns sutta still doesn’t have full physics conformation on the literal 7 suns thing, but the fire as in earth will be swallowed by the sun as a red giant in 5 billion years’ time is within our expectation based on current science. So it could very well be a clue for future people who had by then discovered the existence of asuras, devas etc, to see that the Buddha was not afraid to leave clues to those future generations, despite this sutta would be hard to believe by many generations until then.

Ps. This applies even if the story came down from before Buddha’s time. If Buddha deemed it untrue, he would had just said the true version like he did in DN 1 on the origin of monotheistic prophets.

But Buddha didn’t dispute the fight between the devas and asuras didn’t happen (which might had started from before Zoroastrianism, with Zoroastrianism siding with the asuras, claiming that the asuras are the good guys). The Buddha affirmed the war between the gods really did happen.


Thank you for your thoughts, venerable :pray:

I think DeepL originally had translated that the asuras went into a hole in the pond. It actually looks like it is more clear now and says a single lotus hole or something, so either the AI(?) has learned from the input or I was just too tired to notice that it meant a single hole of the lotus stalk. The translation has already shifted in other ways and slightly improved some. It can’t get the Four Noble Truths but it has the second as the truth of “suffering and concentration” now rather than just repeating the first.

The other reason I thought so though was that the parallel seemed to say that the asuras enter the lotus stalk to go to the world/realm of the asuras. But now this is gone from DeepL as well!

That’s really interesting! I didn’t know that this motif was presumably either pre-Buddhist or shared between Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Indian folklore. More examples of Puranic-era mythology existent already in the suttas. New cases keep coming up!

Could you share where you found this?

Mettā :slight_smile:

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Volume 45, Number 3 & 4, Fall/Winter 2017
Indra’s Flight and Affliction: Vedic
Reminiscences of an Indo-European Myth
Per-Johan Norelius
Uppsala University




There is apparently a fairly lengthy version of the story in a text called the “Oceanic Samadhi of Visualizing the Buddha Sutra” (觀佛三昧海經). In the opening scene, the Buddha gets a visit from his father, King Suddhodana, who tells him a story about the Asura king Vimalacitra getting angry over Indra marrying his beautiful daughter. (I think. It’s a bit of “soap opera” that starts with Vimalacitra getting a choice wife and begetting said daughter.) But, getting enraged with jealousy, the Asura king decides to go to war, raising a fourfold army to attack Indra. There’s no mention that I can see about a lake. The battle is won by reciting a Prajnaparamita mantra (the Heart Sutra?), which caused blade-wheels to fly down and cut the asuras to pieces. Having nowhere to run, they retreated into a “water lily’s hair pore” (藕絲孔). I’d guess @suvira’s explanation makes the most sense of it. The passage about the battle begins at T643.15.647a27.

Suddhodana tells the story to ask how the Buddha’s Dharma can be inconceivable when demons have such magical powers. The rest of the sutra is the Buddha’s response, I would imagine. The text itself is a visualization manual that uses the Buddha’s 32 signs as meditation subjects. The Digital Dictionary of Buddhism entry has a summary of a Japanese study. The conclusion was that it was probably written in China by a Central Asian Buddhist with knowledge of Indian literature.


It’s interesting to see how different people have interpreted bhisamuḷāla in Pali, whether as stalk or bulb (fibres?). It never would have occurred to me that lotus fibre, 絲, is something worth mentioning i.e. the holes in the lotus root fibre. But it seems to be a theme.

I didn’t grow up around lotus roots but…

I wonder if the holes in lotus roots may have been fascinating for Indian children like cheese holes and living in pumpkin shells are fascinating to European children. How did they get there? Who lives in them? Are they a divine portal?


If folks are interested in canonical appearances of asuras, I think the highest concentration can be found in SN11 Sakkasamyutta.

Ooh, that’s interesting. However there are times (I’m thinking about the Lakkhana Samyutta) when the Buddha waited to have a second person’s confirmation before he shared something he saw. But that doesn’t stop him once the conditions are met.

Well, the fact that not everyone believed those things in the time of the Buddha is better proof, lol.

Oh man. I feel like a very dark age is dawning in the realm of online discussions of Buddhism. I don’t mean that about you personally @Vaddha

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I just answered my own question re: why the root fibres?

It seems that the lotus root fibres were used as thread and string, so people may have associated the root with fibre. See pdf on cultural significance of the lotus leaf.

On_the_Cultural_Significance_of_the_Leaf_230207_221931.pdf (13.9 MB)

Noting also the medicinally antipyretic qualities of the lotus- good to calm down an asura army.