How can you tell the difference between Brahma and brahma in Pali usage

Do I understand correctly that

  1. Brahmā as in MahāBrahmā, as in Big B Brahma, is a masculine -an noun while
  2. brahma as in all those other little b-brahmas in the brahmaloka is a neuter -an noun
    (as the dictionary in DPR seems to suggest)

The instrumental case (in said dictionary) given for Brahmā is Brahmanā
while instr. case for brahmā is brahmunā.

So in that line from the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta

“etaṃ bhagavatā bārāṇasiyaṃ isipatane migadāye anuttaraṃ dhammacakkaṃ

pavattitaṃappaṭivattiyaṃ samaṇena vā brāhmaṇena vā devena vā mārena vā brahmunā vā kenaci vālokasmin”ti.

Both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhante Sujato’s translations have
“Near Benares, in the deer park at Isipatana, the Buddha has rolled forth the supreme Wheel of Dhamma. And that wheel cannot be rolled back by any ascetic or brahmin or god or Māra or Brahmā or by anyone in the world.”

ie. that it is capital B- Brahma who can’t turn the dhamma wheel back. But if the pali is brahmunā, wouldn’t this indicate that it means any little-b brahma? (and by extension, could marena be referring to any little bad guy mara and not the Chief Mara? the same way that devena refers to any old deva?)

How can you tell just from looking at the Pali, which doesn’t have capitalisation, whether the word brahmā refers to big B or little B Brahma. You might say " from the context" - but here the context isn’t clear. in fact, the context would suggest, to parallel the rest of the sentence, any samana, any brahmin, any deva… then why only Special Mara and Special Brahma and not any mara and any brahma.

HOnestly, this is such a simple question but writing it up makes it so cumbersome requiring an essay. So sorry this is so long. But if anyone might wish to respond, we would appreciate any edification. Thank you very much.


There is a religiously charged connection here because the Great Brahma, the leader of the beings who inhabit the first three heavens of the fine-material world, is a representation of the Hindu creator god Brahma (DN 11), just as many other concepts were transferred, and the sutta refers to this, since it would have been important to indicate the wheel could not be turned back by Brahma at the time.

However Thanissaro with a capital, connects Brahma with the Christian creator god, bringing the çannot be stopped’ statement into modern context:

“the unexcelled Wheel of Dhamma that cannot be stopped by brahman or contemplative, deva, Mara or God or anyone in the cosmos.”— SN 56.11, Thanissaro

I don’t have anything constructrive to add; but I’ll say: this is a great question.

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I don’t think I’m shedding more light, but I will share what I looked at:

‘…did not claim to have realized the matchless, supreme Enlightenment, in this world with its gods, with its Maras and Brahmas, in this generation with its recluses and brahmanas, with its Devas and humans’.

sadevake - gods
samārake - Maras
sabrahmake - Brahmas
sassamaṇabrāhmaṇiyā - recluses and brahmanas
sadevamanussāya - Devas and humans

…anuttaraṃ sammāsambodhiṃ abhisambuddho paccaññāsiṃ. SN56.11

Nicely sticky little problem, excellent!

TBH, I had not looked at this and was not even aware of any distinction. But it is noted in the PTS Dict:

Unfortunately more modern dictionaries have not reached this word yet.

Looking more closely, I cannot really see that the distinction is justified. Let us look at the entry.

The first sense it gives is the neuter brahman, but it only has one canoncial reference, which itself is in a compound, and I cannot see why it shouldn’t just be considered under the third meaning. In any case, as stated in the dict itself, the compound forms can often not be distinguished as they identical in form.

Under the second sense we have (1) The Brahmā and (2) a brahmā. These are masculine, though this is not stated so far as I can see. The differences between these are slim, and our Mahasangiti text usually or always gives the form found in the second entry (with u), so I am not sure whether the Mahasangiti has corrected the forms or PTS has over-interpreted some variant readings. The PTS dict itself gives one variant in the other case sometimes, eg in small brahmā it notes that a parallel passage has Mahābrahmā.

Anyway, the upshot is that it is not possible (from an initial check) to discern this difference in the Mahasangiti text, which raises the question of whether it is a valid distinction at all.