Mahābrahmā & the Holy in the EBTs

The figure of Brahma in the EBTs is endlessly fascinating IMO. Sometimes “he” is a wonder, sometimes “he” is a wondrous moron.

In DN 27, Ven @sujato makes an interesting translation choice for brahmakaya & brahmabhuta

For these are terms for the Realized One: ‘the one comprised of principle’, and ‘the one comprised of holiness’, and ‘the one who has become principle’, and ‘the one who has become holy’.

I am not pointing this out to be critical in any negative sense, but I do think this is a fertile ground for interesting discourse on this forum: both on the subject of “Brahma in the EBTs” and on the subject of dharma translation, regionalization, and cultural adaption.

So, if I may be so bold as to write a manner of public letter to the translator, can you elaborate on your translation decision here, if you are so inclined?

And on a more general note: what does everyone think of the divergent and diverse characterizations of Brahma in the EBTs? We have brahmaviharas, but we also have Bakabrahma. Great Brahma extolls the Buddha to teach. He also is mired in wrong view (obviously these are not all “the same” Brahma, in some Buddisms, “Brahma” is a class of rebirth rather than any particular one being). Then we have “the Net of Brahma” from DN: a net of wrong views, many of which end in the “viewer” determining that “X” (themselves or another) is Brahma.



Yes, brahma is definitely an interesting case. In a way the suttas are the first Indian literature of a genre where supernatural beings appear as concrete characters. A little bit like in Homer’s Ilias the gods are somewhat ridiculous, have supernatural powers but are ultimately inferior to the heroic humans (Buddha, Mahamoggallana, Anuruddha). Later in India we have the major epics which probably have been around much earlier than the EBT but were fixed as texts only later.

What is fascinating about Brahma is that originally it had a meaning not far away from the Buddha’s ‘Dhamma’. Brahma was the Vedas, or a bit more abstract ‘formulized speech’. And the Buddha-Dhamma is just that: the Buddha’s speech in ‘formulas’, i.e. recurring cluster concepts related to each other.

We find ‘Brahma’ and ‘Dhamma’ parallels at a few places:

  • Brahmacariya and Dhammacariya
  • Brahmakaya and Dhammakaya
  • Brahmacakka and Dhammacakka
  • Brahmaja and Dhammaja

Well, it is a difficult problem, not least because such notions have become so problematized in modern discourse.

My understanding of the root of brahmā is that it ultimately harks back to an energy, whether conceived as life force, magic power, lightning, or simply “the Force”. It is that energy in things that makes them grow and be other than cold and dead. It is that which brings life and light and meaning to the world.

This kind of conception I would relate to the mana spoken of in anthropology, also known as “magic”. Such energy is potent; it is, in fact, potency itself. When it is concentrated it needs to be isolated so as to protect profane realities. In a negative sense such isolation is called “taboo”, in a positive sense “holy” or “sacred”. But the taboo and the sacred are really the same thing.

While Brahmā in a theological sense is greatly evolved compared to the basic magical idea, the notion of “immanent power” still inheres in its connotations. Just as dhamma can be seen as the teachings of the Buddha, but also as the principles immanent in all nature, brahmā is not just a deity, but is also the power of holiness; it is the godliness of god, the divinity of the divine, the sacrifice of the sacred.

It is this connotation, I believe, that underlies the deeper allegorical sense of brahmā as applied, for example, to the arahant. And I believe it applies in the current context, too. The Buddha is the one who embodies or is made up of power, light, truth, goodness, in other words, spiritual potency.