On textual corruption and reconstruction in the Dhaniya Sutta

The Dhaniya Sutta (Snp 1.2) offers a rather charming dialogue between the Buddha and the cowherd Dhaniya. Dhaniya’s name means “the Wealthist” and he lives up to his name. He rejoices in all his security and property, only to be foiled, of course, by the Buddha’s power of renunciation.

The distinctive verse/counter-verse pattern is set up in the first pair of verses, where Dhaniya’s verse is not only rebutted by the Buddha, but done so with rather gleeful punning. I imagine that made it extra-annoying. Where Dhaniya says his “rice is boiled” (pakkodano) the Buddha says he “boils not with anger” (akkhodhano). And where Dhaniya says he has “drawn his milk” (duddhakhīro) the Buddha says he has “drawn out hard-heartedness” (vigatakhilo). If you think the puns are lame in translation, my only defense is … well no, I don’t have any defense TBH.

But this very close pattern of response makes the next pair of verses stand out even more. For there, not only do we lack any puns, we seem to lack any close thematic connection at all. Dhaniya says,

No gadflies or mosquitoes are found
cows graze on the lush meadow grass.
They get by even when the rain comes:
so rain, sky, if you wish.

There is plenty of opportunity for nice Dhamma similes here, but the Buddha’s response goes in another direction entirely. Literally:

I bound a raft and made it well,
crossed over, gone beyond, dispelled the flood.
There is no need of a raft:
so rain, sky, if you wish.

Now, Norman (in his translation Group of Discourses) comments that a verse has probably been lost. This seems likely.

However, he goes on to argue that the content of the existing verse has likely been corrupted and the first two lines belong to Dhaniya. Bhikkhu Bodhi quotes him here without comment, although a little later on, in a similar situation a couple of verses down, he expresses reservations about Norman’s reconstruction.

I don’t agree that there is a contradiction, and in fact think the lines as they stand are more likely to be the Buddha’s.

The reason there’s no contradiction is because of the tenses. The Buddha “bound a raft” (baddhāsi, where āsi is aorist of atthi in simple past tense) when he was working on his practice. Then he crossed over (past participle in simple present perfect), and now he has no need for a raft (vijjati, present indicative). This is, of course, exactly the argument of the famous Simile of the Raft, so it hardly requires extra pleading here.

Furthermore, the second line, also attributed by Norman to Dhaniya, makes better sense as spoken by the Buddha. The verb, the absolutive vineyya, is commonly used in the sense of having got rid of or dispelled certain defilements. It’s a stretch to read it as applying to “overcoming” (Norman) or “escaping” (Bodhi) a flood. Rather, it more likely has its simple, normal meaning of having dispelled the (defilements known as) the flood. Presumably Dhaniya’s lost verse would have used a more appropriate verb.

To bring out the sense, we might render:

I bound a raft and made it well,
and with it I crossed over, went beyond, and dispelled the flood.
Now I have no need of a raft:
so rain, sky, if you wish.