This post was originally written in July 2017. I revised it in March 2023.
There are three main parallels: DA 3, T 8, an independent sutta translated to Chinese, and the Mahāvastu.
Of these, DA 3 is the least use, as it presents events in a summary fashion, excluding the detailed lists of kings and nations.
T 8 is the only source that covers all the information found in the Pali. You can read two ML translation by Lingae Dharmae here and here but be warned, they’re pretty rough!
The Mahāvastu version embeds the verses in a long retelling of the events. It omits the names of the kings.
the first set of verses
DN 19 Mahāgovinda offers one of the most interesting and developed perspectives on ancient Indian geography. Just as a primer here, in the EBTs there is little concept of “India” as a whole; what is known is the Gangetic valley, with little said of the regions below the Deccan. DN 19 to some extent extends this, but the details are a not easy to figure out.
DN 19 does not use the normal term for India, jambudīpa. Instead, it uses mahāpathavi “great land”, which may or may not be significant.
It calls upon the Great Steward to evenly divide the “great land” into seven kingdoms. Each is assigned a capital city while the realm is named for its people. For this essay I will use the name of the realm for consistency. These verses in the Mahāvastu are corrupt, but so far as they go they confirm the content of the Pali. Likewise the kingdoms and their sequence appears to be the same in T 8.
Dantapura for the Kaliṅgas;
Potana for the Assakas;
Mahissati for the Avantis;
Roruka for the Sovīras;
Mithilā ca videhānaṃ,
Mithila for the Videhas;
campā aṅgesu māpitā;
Campā was laid out for the Aṅgas;
Bārāṇasī ca kāsīnaṃ,
and Varanasi for the Kāsīs:
these were laid out by the Steward.
So far, this is pretty straightforward. The exception is Sovīra, which is only found in this place in the EBTs, but is confidently identified with the lower Indus.
The Vimānavatthu confirms this with sindhusovīrabhūmiṁ.
the shape of India
The Pali text says that the “great land” is broad at the north and like the front of a cart to the south (imaṃ mahāpathaviṃ uttarena āyataṃ dakkhiṇena sakaṭamukhaṃ). No part of this phrase is mentioned in the commentary.
The phrase sakaṭamukha was regarded by Rhys Davids as too uncertain to translate. However the meaning has been clarified since then. It is identical in Taisho 8: 其界廣闊。正南南隅，其界狹略，猶如車形. Another Chinese parallel (DA 3) is briefer, but has the same idea: 此閻浮提地， 內廣外狹. The Mahāvastu, likewise, confirms the sense by qualifying the phrase with “narrow” in the south (dakṣiṇena saṁkṣiptā śakaṭamukhasaṁsthitaṁ).
So the idea was that the shape is something like this:
The Pali uses it both of the whole of India and of the individual realms. The Chinese of T8 uses it only of India as a whole (or so it seems as best as I can tell). The Mahāvastu is not entirely clear to me, but the fact that it speaks of a narrowing in the south tends to confirm the same sense.
Thus the consensus of the texts is that they understand that India was broad in the north and narrow in the south. This adds a significant broadening to the scope of Indian geography, as there is typically not much in the way of accurate geography of the south in the Buddhist texts of the time. Together with the mention of Sovīra, elsewhere unattested in early Pali, this shows that the Govindasutta has a broader geographical scope than most of the EBTs.
the arrangement of the kingdoms
This brings us to the second use of sakaṭamukha. This is enigmatic; Walshe and Rhys Davids both silently omit this line of verse. It is, however, described extensively in the commentary, so it must be part of the text.
After the Steward divides the land it is said:
Sabbāni sakaṭamukhāni paṭṭhapesi. Tatra sudaṃ majjhe reṇussa rañño janapado hoti.
All were set up as cart-fronts. And King Renu’s nation was right in the middle.
Why is the same descriptor used of the continent as a whole and each individual realm? It seems unclear, but maybe it as a fractal thing: each part has the same shape as the whole.
As I said, the commentary on this is substantial, and I won’t try to translate it all. But there are some useful details. First, it says that “all” here refers to the six nations apart from Videha, which seems reasonable. Then it says that each of the nations intersects with Videha, which was at the middle like a canopy (vitānasadisaṃ). It then goes on to explain why this arrangement was useful. But the image that struck me was that of a canopy or umbrella. It must be something like this:
Each of the six nations is like a segment, like slices of a pie, and they all converge on Videha in the middle. If we make the first slice of the pie from east to west, then it turns out that the six kingdoms are in fact laid out around the center.
As a general layout this works well for the six kingdoms.
The problem is Videha. This lay to the north of all the other kingdoms, and can in no way be construed as the center. Note that it is only in the preceding story that Renu’s nation is identified as Videha. Here the text simply says reṇussa rañño janapado “King Renu’s nation”.
Now, the preceding story would have us believe that the ancient and powerful kingdom of Videha was the source, or at least a source, of spreading Aryan culture to the south. And historically it probably did play some role in this. Perhaps its “central” role lead to the confused understanding that it was geographically central. This exact idea was, after all, a major plot point in Asimov’s Foundation series.
Rhys Davids noticed this problem, and suggested that of all the kingdoms, Kāsi is the only one that might be considered central. I think there are some other factors that support this conjecture.
Specifically, the verses start logically in the east with the rising sun at Kaliṅga. They then proceed logically in a clockwise direction (padakkhiṇā) through Assaka, Avanti, and Sovīra. Next is Videha, followed by Aṅga, with Kāsi at the end. Thus the verses seem as if they originally proceeded in a clockwise direction for the six kingdoms and placed Kāsi in the middle.
This suggests a meaningful explanation for the problem. Kāsi would have been brahmanized before Videha. But at a later time, Videha became prominent. Perhaps a story originally intended to portray Kāsi’s centrality in the brahmanization process became co-opted by the Videhans for their own glorification.
- Kāsi is geographically center (-ish)
- It was an older Brahmanical center
- The sequence implies it was the center
- The older story is maintained in the verses.
I think most likely the verses were intended to portray Kāsi as the center. Let’s assume this for now and see where it takes us.
Now, we have a further detail for the kingdoms and that is the names of their kings. These are presented in a subsequent verse. This verse is abruptly inserted, with no organic connection with the prose that proceeds it. It is absent from the Mahāvastu.
The kings names are simply listed and are not explicitly identified with their kingdoms in either DN 19 or T 8. Are we able to identify each king with a realm? The commentary is no help here.
Rhys Davids suggests, reasonably enough, that that the names of kings are to be identified one-by-one with the realms.
In support of this, Ja 424, invoking this sutta, identifies Bharata as king of Sovīra.
As for Reṇu, king of the Videhans, he appears at number five in the list of kings, just as Videha appears at number five in the list of kingdoms. On the other hand, there is a King Reṇu of the Kurus at Ja 505, though there is no reason there should be only one Reṇu.
Most of the remaining kings are not easy to identify. Dhataraṭṭha (Sanskrit Dhṛtarāṣtra) means “one whose realm is firm” and it was a common royal name. I have found two possible connections among the many who bore such names in Pali and Sanskrit. Neither of these, however, bear any convincing relation to our story.
- There appears to be a Dhṛtarāṣtra king of Kāsi referred to in Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa 13:5:4:22, but there is not enough context to say much about him.
- If we squint fairly hard, we might see a vague association between Dhataraṭṭha of Aṅga and the Nāga-king of that name in Ja 543. The geography of that tale is not very coherent, but he was was the king of an ocean realm east of Benares, which fits with Aṅga. Not that the king of our story was a nāga of course, but the word nāga is sometimes used of native peoples, and perhaps the origins of the story lie in the royal union of the Kasis with the non-Aryan people of the east.
More cogently, Rhys Davids notices a further detail: the Dīpavamsa (iii 40) provides a list of kings of Kāsi, which includes Disampati and Reṇu. The fact that these occur one after the other confirms that they are the same as in the Mahāgovindasutta. This provides a rather striking confirmation for the hypothesis that these details originally placed Disampati and Reṇu in Kāsi and they were later shifted to Videha. It seems that the Dīpavamsa must have drawn on independent sources for its list.
Now, if we consider the only other list of these kings in T 8, we find that the names are not obvious, but with a little ingenuity, and a lot of help from the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism, it seems they are the same as the Pali.
|黎努王||黎 is pronounced “li”, 努 is “nu”||Reṇu|
|破冤王||冤 can equal śatru, 破 is often bheda etc. so this is sattubheda “foe-breaker”||Sattabhū|
|勝尊王||勝 is probably viśeṣa, 尊 is “sage, honorable”||Vessabhū|
|明愛王||明 is “light” (bha), 愛 is “desire” (rata)||Bharata|
The sequence is the same, except that Reṇu is moved to the start. This is logical, as he is the first of the kings. This reinforces the perception that Reṇu’s position in the list is unstable.
Remember that we have an explicit identification of Bharata with Sovīra, so the first four items in the list appear stable. If we remove Reṇu, the two Dhataraṭṭhas would then move up a slot, fitting with Videha and Aṅga. That leaves Kāsi as the only kingless realm. Reṇu is at the start of the T8 list of kings, while Kāsi is the last of the kingdoms; in Indian lists, the start and the end are the most important so can easily be swapped. This is obviously very tentative, but so far as it goes, it seems to me we can reconcile the lists in T8 and the Pali with the assumption that Reṇu was originally the king of Kāsi.
One of the kings is named Bharata. This is a word with a complex set of meanings and associations. It is associated with the spread of Vedic culture in India, as is obvious from the name Mahābhārata. In sn35.132:1.3, bharataka is used (in Avanti) apparently in the sense of “faux-bharatas” or “pretenders to Vedic culture”.
The original sense of the word is obscure. It may be associated with “bards” who conveyed the stories. Wijesekera argued for a relation with bhāra i.e. “burden” i.e. the “booty” that was taken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans in their raids. In this reading, the original Bharatas were the bearers of the burden of the wealth they carried in their caravans.
There are several kings named Bharata in the lineage lists of the Ikṣvakus. But the most famous Bharata was the legendary king of Hastināpura (Delhi), founder of the Lunar lineage, conqueror of India, and sire of the warring tribes of the Mahābhārata. His story is told in the Saṁbhavapara of the Mahābhārata.
In addition to the individual Bharata, the text sums up by speaking of the seven Bhāratas (long initial ā via secondary derivation, i.e “of Bharata”, “Bharatists”, etc.).
tadāsuṁ satta bhāradhāti.
Then there were seven Bhāratas.
The Chinese of T8 does not seem to contain the word bhārata; perhaps it read bhāga.
Each of the seven kings has been divided
The Pali is confused by the proliferation of variants, which according to PTS are Sc bhātarā; St bhārathā; Sd bārāthā; Bm bhāradhāti; K bhāravāti. The Mahāsaṅgīti reads Bhāradhā, but both PTS and BJT accept Bhāratā. The commentary does not help in this detail, as it adopts the spelling of its own Burmese lineage, so is not an independent witness.
ime satta jambudīpatale bhāradhā mahārājāno ahesunti
In these seven regions of India were the Bhāratā great kings.
Thus the commentary reads the Bhāratas as being a lineage name for these royal families, which is the obvious reading of the text. However, so far as I can see, Bhārata is not elsewhere used in this way. Rather, it is a name of a realm or region, especially India following its unification under King Bharata.
The realm south of the Himalayas (or Meru) is called Bhārata and it may be divided into seven (or nine) parts, which may be continents (or realms), and one of which may or may not be Bhārata itself. Confused yet? Such diverse and competing meanings suggest the age of the concept, which in all probability preceded the Aryan incursions into India.
The text appears to identify the seven bhāratās with the seven kings. But the verse is clumsy. In addition to the abrupt way it is inserted, the use of the word bhārata itself is odd. It is just thrown in there as if it is obvious, yet it is used like this nowhere else in early Pali.
The verses are described by Rhys Davids as “mnemonic doggerel”, which may not be the kindest description, but he has a point. They read very much like an uddāna, a concluding verse that sums up the key information of a preceding passage. We have already seen that there is reason to think the verses pre-existed the prose context. It seems to me likely that they originally summed up a different narrative, where the meaning of bhāratā was made clear.
If, rather than reading this verse on its own, we read it together with the preceding verses, then the last line appears to sum up all the information, i.e. the capitals, peoples, and kings, describing the seven “nations” or “lands”. In this way, bhārata stays closer to its normal meaning of “land under the sway of Vedic culture”.
So we can read the seven Bhāratas as either the seven “kings of India” or the seven “kingdoms of India”. Either way does not change the fundamental meaning, as the usage of the term clearly identifies the origin of the story with the introduction and spread of Vedic culture.
the meaning of the story
The story adapts a Brahmanical legend, a myth of origins that authorizes the spread of Vedic culture through India. The myth is elevated so that rather than endorsing Vedic claims of caste and ritual it exalts meditation and the realization of Dhamma. In this way it is similar to many other Buddhist texts.
There is an added layer here, however, in that the underlying Brahmanical myth seems to have been already co-opted. It seems that the story originally established Kāsi as the center of Vedic culture, and was adapted by the Videhans to show their own centrality. This must have happened during the relatively short period of Videhan ascension, which probably spanned a couple of centuries until it was ended by the Vajjis around the time of the Buddha’s birth.
There is no particular reason why the early Buddhists would have wanted to exalt Videha, which was politically irrelevant in the life of the Buddha. As shown in such texts as DN 16 Mahāparinibbānasutta and DN 18 Janavasabhasutta, they were concerned, rather, to ally themselves with Magadha. Thus it seems to be mere happenstance that they inherited this story from there. As we have seen, the Dīpavaṁsa has drawn from other sources.
Thus the sutta depicts a double-co-option: the Videhan brahmins adapted the story from the Kasian brahmins, then the Buddhists adapted it from the Videhan brahmins. Still fuzzier and almost out of focus, the mention of the Bhāratas hints at an even older source, back to the origins of the Bharata legend in Hastināpura, and perhaps even further, to the Proto-Indo-Europeans as nomadic pastoralists, who by the unstoppable power of their horses and chariots were able to raid the villages and lands of sedentary folk.
Ever westward the road goes, telling the dreams of the Brahmins for domination by the inherent force of their culture and the strong arms of the kings under their sway.
- The description “broad in the north, narrow in the south like the front like a cart” shows a knowledge of the shape of the Indian subcontinent.
- The geography of the six realms works out pretty well.
- Videha doesn’t fit in the center.
- Kāsi was probably the original center.
- Reṇu and Disampati were probably kings of Kāsi.
- The legend was probably co-opted by Videhan brahmins from an earlier Kasian legend.