I wrote the following as part of a larger work on Dependent Origination, where I considered it too tangential to include. Instead of throwing it in the bin, I thought I'd share it here, with a few extra thoughts. Perhaps it can lead to some fruitful exchange in your replies.
In an influential article published in 2000 Joanna Jurewicz suggested Dependent Origination to be a polemic response to Vedic myths on the creation of the universe. Various scholars have since voiced their acceptance of these ideas, most notably Richard Gombrich and more recently, though much more tangentially, Venerable Anālayo. Having had a closer look myself, I am not convinced. I will argue here that Jurewicz’ conclusions are based on evidence too inferential to support them and then illustrate how the Buddha actually responded to these myths.
I agree there are some Brahmanic influences on Dependent Origination, most prominently in the factor of nāmarūpa and specifically its relation to viññāṇa. However, I think Jurewicz overreaches when suggesting the Buddha formed the whole teaching of DO as a specific reply to Vedic cosmogenesis, that the underlying concepts the two describe are similar, the only true difference being that the Buddha didn’t suppose a self—or as she paraphrases the Buddha: “That’s right, this is how the whole process develops. However, the only problem is that no one undergoes a transformation here.”
In the introduction Jurewicz says the interpretation of Dependent Origination should remain within the scope of Buddhology. The domain of the Buddhists apparently only go so far, though, for the very next paragraph states Dependent Origination to be about subject-object cognition. Later it is also stated that the factor of craving “is the craving for continued subject-object acts”. Venerable Anālayo already critiqued such views (although without reference to Jurewicz): “The subject-object duality is not problematized in early Buddhist thought.” It also is not how Dependent Origination is generally understood, certainly not in its most widely accepted interpretation, the so-called three-lifetime model, which understands Dependent Origination to focus on rebirth, with the most relative craving being that for existence, not that for “subject-object acts”, whatever they may be. Whether the Vedic creation myths were meant to metaphorically describe a process of subject-object cognition I am not the right person to judge, but at present I am unconvinced by this as well. The myths certainly can be interpreted more literally, as describing the origination of the universe and life within it. As far as I know, this is how Vedic scholars generally interpret them. Be that as it may, differing with Buddhist tradition on some of the fundamentals, the parallels drawn by Jurewicz already don’t start off very persuasively.
But even if we grant that both traditions were describing some sort of subject-object cognition, there is a more significant problem: Occam’s Razor seems to have been left forgotten in its case. As Occam and many others before him told us, the preferred conclusion is the one with the simplest assumptions based on the available data. This is not what is happening here, where minor similarities between the texts are taken as significant confirmations of the hypothesis. The connections are all deemed “too evident to be pure coincidence”, supposed to have been deliberately made by the Buddha. Yet no other possible mechanisms are even considered.
A much less weighty explanation for most connections Jurewicz sees between Dependent Origination and Vedic cosmogenesis is that the two religions simply shared an identical social milieu and language and therefore naturally used similar words in somewhat similar contexts, this context being the creation of life. As an example, the term saṅkhāra in the suttas is also used in a worldly sense, such as the creation of a medicine or raft. According to Monier-Williams the Sanskrit saṃskāra has similar uses. It is not unnatural to assume Buddhists and Brahmins independently decided to use this term (or related ones) to describe the creation of life—not to mention words like existence, birth, and death, which, being commonplace when speaking about life, can not be taken as strong evidence for a didactic connection between the two doctrines.
Whether the Buddha replied to them or not, the link between ignorance and saṅkhāra perceived to be present in the Vedic texts I think is already very inferential by itself. A metaphorical description of the Creator god Prajāpati eating cooked animals is understood to represent him uniting with fire, which is taken to be a reference to the loss of subject-object duality, which is taken to stand for ignorance. These connections seem unlikely to me, and since Jurewicz does not reference others, I would like to know if other Vedic scholars have even taken the first steps, of equating the story to subject-object duality, let alone linking it to ignorance.
The term saṅkhāra is also very rare in this context in the Vedic texts, which for ‘create’ usually use words from root sṛj. The Buddha never uses such words when teaching Dependent Origination, which is not what we might expect if he indeed intended to parody Vedic creation myths and was aware of their specific terminology.
Likewise, the word nidāna, which Jurewicz thinks is “surely significant”, is also used in a phrases which have no link with Dependent Origination at all, such as ‘from Sāvatthī’ (sāvatthi-nidānaṃ). The word just seems a natural pick if you want to talk about the origin of something. I fail to see how this word is of such significance, even more so because Jurewicz only finds one direct reference in the entire Vedic corpus and only two loose connections with somewhat synonymous terms.
It also begs the question. Did Buddha the even know all these specific passages? It appears to be assumed, but it seems improbable to me, given that no Vedic text is ever quoted verbatim in the Pāli discourses. Having a general knowledge of these texts, which most scholars in the field agree Buddha probably did have, is very different from knowing the exact terminology they employed in rare occasions in their creation myths, such as saṃskāra and nidāna.
Some of the connections made are even looser, sometimes almost solely based on encountering the same grammatical root of a word in both corpuses, as with vid for vedāna. In other instances the word isn’t even found at all, and it’s only an assumption the Buddha used it to refer to certain ideas, as with ignorance (avijjā). In this case the article also seem very selective, because while the Nāsadīya Sukta of the Rig Veda may describe the Creator to have no knowledge—although it actually just wonders whether he didn’t—the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says brahman actually had knowledge before creation. And unlike the Nāsadīya it actually uses the word vidya (vijjā). Jurewicz mentions this text but concludes it instead indirectly refers to a-vijjā, because the Creator only knew himself and not the objects.
If a connection with Brahmanism was intended with avijjā, it more likely parodied the textual knowledge of the priests, an important concept found all throughout the Vedic texts, not a supposed cognitive inability of the Creator only vaguely hinted at here and there. The suttas repeatedly and directly mock knowledge of the three Vedas (the Rig, Yajur, and Sāma) by contrasting it with the Buddha’s threefold knowledge (te-vijjā = “three-veda”). In one such case the Brahmin being challenged is even called Three Ears, an obvious pun. The discourses don’t tend to hide the irony when it’s intended, is what I’m saying. Dependent Origination, on the other hand, is never presented in such a way.
The factor of craving is also explained through an indirect connection. This I think is especially problematic for the argument, because it has a central place in the Buddha’s truth of the origin of suffering, of which Dependent Origination is an extended version. The article supposes that the rays the Vedic poets send forth at creation stand for semen, which implies a sexual act, which implies craving. With this kind of reasoning we can connect about any passage together—which is fine for us to do, but the supposition here is that the Buddha made the exact same connections.
That both traditions use fire as a metaphor also doesn’t mean they refer to the same concepts. It just indicates fire was an important part of their society—where most food, warmth, and light was derived from it—and therefore something the listeners could directly relate to. To assume the Buddha picked this metaphor to refer to the “fiery activity of the poets burning the world in the cosmogenic act of cognition” seems to me far-fetched, especially since the passage Jurewicz refers to here itself does not refer to fire but to light. This is not a “distinct” reference. It’s searching for parallels where none exist, and seems to me a case of confirmation bias.
The factor of phassa (contact) is not discussed at all.
So, while Jurewicz makes a few pertinent points, on the whole I am not convinced they are particularly “striking similarities”, as she calls them. Imagine a society similar to 2500 BC India, one the Buddha never lived in or heard about. It also had a variety of authors composing religious texts in Sanskrit, leaving us a similarly huge body of works where “creation is described in metaphors which have many semantic layers”, as Jurewicz says. I would be very surprised if someone set to discover them wouldn’t find parallels with Dependent Origination that appear just as striking. Case in point, back in 1971 Alex Wayman already suggested Dependent Origination to be a parody of Brahmanic cosmology, but most connections he made are very different from Jurewicz’.
I also can’t accept that such a central principle, one which the Buddha is said to have discovered at the night of his awakening and which he said others could also discover afterwards, would be little more than a parody of cosmological ideas. It would have made these teachings largely meaningless for all but the most well-educated Brahmins, at least from the perspective Jurewicz describes. She says the Buddha addressed “educated people well versed in Brāhmaṇic thought” who, so it is presumed, apparently were able to recognize the exact ideas being satirized with a mere sequence of twelve words (ignorance and so on).
A passage in the Brahmajāla Sutta, however, does parody Brahmanic creation myths. Jurewicz surprisingly doesn’t mention it, so let me discuss it briefly. For comparison, below are first two relevant passages from the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad. Both anthropomorphize the panpsychic essence of brahman into a personal god, much like the Brahmā of the Buddhist texts, which may or may not be allegorical.
In the beginning this world was only brahman, and it knew only itself (ātman), thinking: “I am brahman.” […] In the beginning this world was only the self (ātman), only one. He had this desire: “I wish I had a wife so I could father offspring.”
In the beginning this world was just a single body (ātman) shaped like a man. He looked around and saw nothing but himself. The first thing he said was, “Here I am!” […] That first being became afraid […]. He found no pleasure at all; so [therefore now too] one finds no pleasure when one is alone. He wanted to have a companion.
Out of his wish for company brahman then created other beings.
The thought “I am Brahmā”, the anxiety of loneliness, the wish for company, the creation of other beings—we find all these ideas in the Buddha’s parody:
Because his life-span or merit runs out, a certain being passes on from the company of radiant gods and is reborn in the empty mansion of Brahmā. There he is mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the sky, ever glorious. He exists there for a very long period of time. But after staying there alone for a long time, he becomes dissatisfied and anxious, thinking: “Oh, if only other beings would come to exist here too!” Then, because their life-span or merit runs out, other beings pass on from the company of radiant gods and are reborn in the mansion of Brahmā too, in the company of that being. They too are mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the sky, ever glorious. They exist there for a very long period of time.
Then that being who was reborn there first thinks: “I am Brahmā, the Great Brahmā, the Champion, the Undefeated, the Universal Seer, the Wielder of Power, the Lord, the Maker, the Creator, the Best, the Emanator, the Almighty, the Father of all who are and will be. These beings were created by me. Why? Because I first had the wish, ‘Oh, if only other beings would come to exist here too!’ And then these beings came to exist here.’”
Just imagine being a Brahmin listening to this. The satire is hard to miss, which illustrates what I mentioned before: when the Buddha lampooned other ideas, he didn’t tend to hide it. The concepts being addressed are also much more apparent than those suggested by Jurewicz. They can be understood by a wider public, not just educated Brahmins.
To point out some of the ideas behind the actual parody:
- Brahmā was never the only being, as opposed to the Upaniṣads where brahman is the only thing that existed pre-creation. This suggests the universe may have no single start like the Upaniṣadic myths portray, aligning with the Buddha’s reflection on saṃsāra having no discoverable beginning.
- Beings are born in Brahmā’s company on their own accord, and Brahmā is simply deluded about his creative power. This denies there being a divine entity that created other beings and brings responsibility for their birth back to the beings themselves.
- Brahmā thinks he is the highest being, the Lord, the Best, and so forth. (These terms all sound very Brahmanic.) But other beings come to exist in the exact same place for the exact same reasons, meaning all beings can attain these states of existence and none is intrinsically higher than another.
- There are realms even higher than Brahmā’s, including the radiant gods, which is an allusion that brahman isn’t the highest goal, like some Brahmins believed.
- Even Brahmā is reborn, meaning even the most powerful being in the universe (according to Brahmins) is subject to saṃsāra. In contrast, the Vedic creation myths do not mention rebirth even for humans. We may even question whether their composers even considered it, since a common opinion among scholars is that the Vedic religion did not initially contain rebirth but only (hesitantly) incorporated the belief after coming into contact with native Indian religions. In any case, if the Buddha’s parody didn’t introduce rebirth to Brahmins, at least it reminded them of it.
- All beings die, including Brahmā. This surely challenged the Brahmins who aimed for an immortal existence in union with brahman.
Many of these ideas are also central tenets of Dependent Origination: the inevitability of death, the endless cyclical nature of life, the inability to find a state of everlasting existence, the being’s own responsibility for creating rebirth, etc.
The parody also gives us an idea of how the Buddha’s soteriology (his ideas on liberation) differed from the Upaniṣads, where a state of nāmarūpa-less consciousness in union with brahman was the end goal. To the Buddha, there was no such state. This difference I believe is actually responsible (at least in part) for the inclusion of nāmarūpa in Dependent Origination, which in a future writing I will discuss in detail. This connection between the two traditions has been suggested by others before, and the evidence for it is quite persuasive.
But the specific connections made in Jurewicz’ paper I think are of a different nature, being too loose. Dependent Origination is not a parody of Vedic creation myths.
I further think that if we considered any of the various teachings of Dependent Origination that do not present the twelvefold sequence—for instance SN12.38—most of the suggested concepts will also fail to make sense.
- Sunyo, to be published in 2024
- Gombrich 2009 p.127; Anālayo 2018. Also Jones p.252
- Anālayo 2021 p.108
- Snp 1.2
- E.g. in BU 1.4.5, BU 1.4.12, BU 1.5.21, BU 5.8.1, TU 1.1.
- E.g. SN 1.2
- RV 10.129; BU 1.4.9
- For example SN 7.8, AN 3.58 (on Three Ears), AN 3.59, Iti 99, MN 91, Snp 3.9, Thag 3.1. See also Gombrich 1980 p.29f.
- AN 3.61
- Wayman p.198
- Jurewicz p.179
- See also Gombrich 1980 p.21, Ellis p.220.
- BU 1.4.14–17, translation Olivelle
- BU 1.4.1, translation Olivelle
- DN 1 at I 18, DN 24 at III 29
- See also Gombrich 2009 p.183
- E.g. Keith p.415, Jayatilleke, Joshi p.18, Warder p.22, Reat p.163, O'Flaherty p.3, Jaini in O'Flaherty p.218, Flood p.86, Masih p.37, Bronkhorst p.75, Dhammika p.6.
- Anālayo 2018
- Rebirth in Early Buddhism and Current Research (pdf edition), Bhikkhu Anālayo, 2018.
- Anālayo 2021
- Clearing the Path Continues: Notes on Ñāṇavīra Thera’s ‘Notes of Dhamma’ in Journal of Journal of Buddhist Studies vol.18, Bhikkhu Anālayo, 2021.
- Greater Magadha: Studies in the Culture of Early India, Johannes Bronkhorst, 2007.
- Good Karma! Bad Karma! What Exactly is Karma?, S. Dhammika, 2015.
- Early Buddhism and its Relation to Brahmanism: A Comparative and Doctrinal Investigation, Gabriel Ellis, 2021.
- An Introduction to Hinduism, Gavin D. Flood, 1996.
- Gombrich 1980
- How Buddhism Began: The Conditioned Genesis of the Early Teachings, R.F. Gombrich, 1980.
- Gombrich 2009
- What the Buddha Thought, R.F. Gombrich, 2009.
- Survival and Karma In Buddhist Perspective in The Wheel vol.141–143, K.N. Jayatilleke, 1969.
- New Light on the Twelve Nidānas in Contemporary Buddhism vol.10.2, Dhivan Thomas Jones, 2009.
- Brahmanism, Buddhism, and Hinduism: An Essay on Their Origins and Interactions in The Wheel vol.150-151, Lal Mani Joshi, 1970.
- Playing with Fire: The Pratītyasamutpāda From the Perspective of Vedic Thought in Journal of the Pali Text Society vol.26 pp.77–103, Joanna Jurewicz, 2000.
- The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads, Arthur Berriedale Keith, 1925.
- A Comparative Study of Religions, Masih, 2000.
- A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (New Edition), Monier Monier-Williams, 1899-1986.
- Karma and Rebirth in Classical Indian Traditions, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty (ed.), 1980.
- The Early Upaniṣads, Patrick Olivelle, 1998.
- Karma and Rebirth in the Upaniṣads and Buddhism in Numen vol.24.3 pp.163–185, Noble Ross Reat, 1977.
- Seeds, Paintings and a Beam of Light: Similes for Consciousness in Dependent Arising, Bhikkhu Sunyo, 2023.
- Indian Buddhism, A.K. Warder, 1970.
- Buddhist Dependent Origination in History of Religions vol.10.3 pp.185–203, Alex Wayman, 1971.
- Aṅguttara Nikāya
- Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad
- Dīgha Nikāya
- Pāli Khandhaka
- Majjhima Nikāya
- Ṛg Veda
- Saṃyutta Nikāya
- Sutta Nipāta
- Taittirīya Upaniṣad